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Each month the D.C. Bar publishes an agenda of its upcoming Board of Governors meeting and distributes it to board members and other interested parties, such as Legal Times. It depends on the topic, but monthly bar meetings are usually uneventful. But the agenda for last week’s meeting contained an “action item” of possible public interest. The 23-member board was going to discuss and vote on a proposed conflict-of-interest policy for its pro bono program. The only other information about the item stated that this action needed to be expedited. Hmm. Did the program not already have a conflict policy? Did this have anything to do with D.C. Bar President James Sandman becoming senior pro bono partner at Arnold & Porter? Or did it relate to the $3.2 million pro bono appropriation from the D.C. government? There were plenty of questions, but the Feb. 6 bar meeting provided few answers. When it came time to discuss the proposed policy, Sandman declared it would be done in an “executive session” — not in public — so that the board could confer with its general counsel. It was later learned that the new policy was approved by the board during this closed session. Sandman says the board’s vote is considered to have been public because “the minutes will reflect the adoption of the policy.” But why was the discussion closed in the first place? According to bar spokeswoman Cynthia Kuhn, the board was merely updating the pro bono program’s existing policy in order to better comply with Internal Revenue Service standards. As a 501(c)(3), the program is required when filing its taxes to have a conflict-of-interest policy. As to why the program’s tax requirements were such a sensitive issue, the board members cry privilege. “We were receiving advice from our counsel, so that would be a privilege issue there,” says Melvin White, the board’s president-elect. The bar’s general counsel, Timothy Webster of Sidley Austin, would only say (via Kuhn) that the board’s policy was exclusively related to the tax filing and had nothing to do with Sandman or any other issue. The board plans to correct the “inadvertent oversight” of not disclosing its actions at its March meeting.
Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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