Bill Lann Lee, a former U.S. Assistant Attorney General who served during the Clinton administration, is deeply involved with a group that donated thousands of dollars for the legal defense of convicted terrorist lawyer Lynne Stewart.
Five-and-a-half years after being convicted of providing material support for terrorism, Stewart last month was resentenced to ten years.
Lee, who was Bill Clinton’s top civil rights officer from 1997-2000, is a donor to, and serves on the advisory board of, the Impact Fund. The Berkeley-based foundation directed a $5,000 grant to the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee in 2006.
The grant came as Stewart was appealing her February 2005 conviction on five felonies, including providing material support for terrorism and obstruction of justice. A jury found she had passed messages from her client, “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman – the man convicted in 1993 of plotting to blow up the United Nations, an FBI building, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and the George Washington Bridge – to his fundamentalist terrorist supporters in the Egypt-based Islamic Group (Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya). One message called off the ceasefire IG had with President Hosni Mubarak, an invitation to resume its efforts to replace Egypt’s secular government with Shari’a law. The jurors found, in effect, that Stewart helped Rahman lead his terrorist organization from his cell.
The Impact Fund is a 501(c)3 founded by lawyer Brad Seligman to advance “economic and social justice.” Bill Lann Lee was and is a member of its board of advisors, and he and wife Carolyn Yee are regular, annual contributors. Impact receives more substantial funding from the Ford Foundation, the Levi Strauss Foundation, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Lee spent 18 years with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund before Bill Clinton nominated him to serve as Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, a post he held for three years without ever being confirmed by the Senate. Senate Democrats took the unusual step of filibustering their own president’s candidate in the knowledge Lee would never be confirmed if he faced a full Senate vote. At the time, presidential spokesman Mike McCurry portrayed Republican opposition to Lee, who is of Chinese heritage, as “race-based wedge politics.” Republicans expressed concerns about Lee’s role in a lawsuit against the state of California over Proposition 209, the referendum voters overwhelmingly passed to end racial preferences, and another case in which he argued a hike in Los Angeles bus fares constituted racism. Clinton appointed Lee to the position in an “acting” capacity, then promoted him to the full position in the last year of his administration, sidestepping the Senate’s “advice and consent” role.
As the nation’s leading civil rights enforcer, Lee accused the Pittsburgh Police Department of violating suspects’ civil rights, although local officials said he “never interviewed a single officer about the allegations.” He refused to allow United Charter, a K-8 charter school in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to open its doors for fear too many white students would enroll, causing de facto school segregation. Lee favored forced racial busing. He pressured the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to provide bilingual ballots and Hispanic poll workers to assist Hispanics in voting. (Fully 72 percent of Hispanics voted for Bill Clinton in 1996.) In a particularly creative moment, Lee stated a police force’s failure to provide a translator into every language, 24-hours-a-day, “may be attributable, at least in part, to invidious discrimination on the basis of national origin and race.”
Lee may have helped shape the Clinton administration’s hands-off approach to the Stewart case. Stewart’s infractions occurred in May 2000, during the waning days of Clinton’s second term, but it was the Bush justice department that chose to prosecute. Before reporting to jail last November, Stewart told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! radio, “Interestingly enough, we found out later that the Clinton administration, under Janet Reno, had the option to prosecute me, and they declined to do so, based on the notion that without lawyers like me or the late Bill Kunstler or many that I could name, the cause of justice is not well served.”
Although Stewart faced 30 years in prison, Judge John G. Koeltl, whom President Clinton appointed to the federal bench in 1994, sentenced her to only 28 months. Following an appeal, she was resentenced earlier this month to ten years in prison.
Since leaving the public sector, Bill Lann Lee returned to private practice. He is currently a shareholder in the Oakland law firm of Lewis Feinberg Lee Renaker & Jackson. The firm’s website states that it “supports” the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for American Progress, the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and the ACLU Foundation-LGBT Project.
Lee is not the only high-profile figure to fund the terror lawyer’s defense with tax-exempt grant money. George Soros’ Open Society Institute donated $20,000 to the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee, and more than $200,000 to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which participated in her defense.
Ben Johnson is an Associate Fellow at the National Legal and Policy Center. His personal website is TheRightsWriter.com.