Larry Klayman.
Larry Klayman. (Photo: Stacey Cramp/NLJ)

Larry Klayman, the Washington attorney who won a landmark trial court ruling against government surveillance, has agreed to accept a public censure for violating attorney ethics rules.

Klayman signed the negotiated discipline with the Office of Bar Counsel in Washington on Monday. Klayman was accused of conflicts of interest in three cases in which he represented a client suing Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group he founded and later had a falling out with after leaving in 2003.

“I wanted to put [the ethics case] behind me because I have a lot of important things to do to also protect the American people,” Klayman said on Tuesday.

The agreement with bar counsel is still subject to review. If a hearing committee accepts the deal, it will recommend approval to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which makes the final decision. If the committee rejects the agreement, the case will be sent back to bar counsel for prosecution.

In an interview Tuesday, Klayman said bar counsel “recognized there was no evidence of dishonesty or personal gain.” He said he took on the cases that were the subject of the ethics complaint “because I thought it was the right thing to do to protect the clients.”

Bar Counsel Wallace Shipp Jr. declined to comment. Judicial Watch President Thomas Fitton, who filed the ethics complaint against Klayman in 2008, said he would reserve any comment for the hearing committee’s review.

Klayman founded Judicial Watch and served as its chairman and general counsel from 1994 to 2003. According to the agreement Klayman signed with bar counsel, he represented three individuals suing Judicial Watch between 2006 and 2008. He didn’t get Judicial Watch’s consent to take those cases, as required by the local ethics rules when there are conflicts of interest involving a former client.

Klayman has clashed with Judicial Watch since leaving the organization. Earlier this month, a federal jury in Florida awarded Klayman $181,000 in a defamation suit he brought against the organization. Klayman, in a June 20 brief defending his actions against the ethics charges, claimed the bar proceeding was “yet another attempt by the directors of Judicial Watch to sabotage and damage” him.

According to Klayman’s agreement with bar counsel, Judicial Watch witnesses would have testified in the ethics case that Klayman’s decision to represent the clients suing the group was “vindictive” and “a product of ongoing acrimony in connection with his separation from Judicial Watch.”

Each of the three cases Klayman handled against Judicial Watch involved a conflict of interest, bar counsel alleged. He represented a former Judicial Watch employee, a Judicial Watch donor and a former Judicial Watch client, according to bar documents.

Klayman cooperated with bar counsel and the misconduct at issue “did not involve dishonesty,” according to the agreement. Klayman, a member of the D.C. Bar since 1980, also had never been disciplined in Washington.

Bar counsel and Klayman, who represented himself, agreed “that a public censure strikes the correct balance of protecting the public and deterring future misconduct.”

Since leaving Judicial Watch, Klayman founded his own government watchdog group, Freedom Watch. He scored a major court win in December, when U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone metadata “almost certainly” violated Americans’ privacy rights. The government is appealing the decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

“I’m confident the Supreme Court will agree [with Leon],” Klayman told The Washington Post, which featured Klayman on the cover of the paper’s May 9 Sunday magazine. “But even if it doesn’t, a federal judge has spoken. And the American people are smart enough to know that the Supreme Court doesn’t always make the right decisions.”

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com. On Twitter: @zoetillman.