WASHINGTON, D.C. — During a hearing following charges of conflict of interest and unethical behavior, Judge Abraham Sofaer, a former senior U.S. State Department official, defended his decision to represent the Libyan government in the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing case.
Sofaer said he viewed himself essentially as a "mediator." "I thought that `you can't bring back the loved ones, but it's at least a positive thing to bring back money from the responsible party [Libya],"' Sofaer testified before a three-member panel of the District of Columbia board on professional responsibility. The panel is an arm of the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Sofaer, 56, now a Palo Alto resident, left Washington in 1994 for Stanford's Hoover Institution. He is the George P. Shultz distinguished scholar in foreign policy and national security affairs.
The lead U.S. negotiator in the 1986-1989 Taba talks between Israel and Egypt, Sofaer speaks frequently to community groups on Jewish and Middle Eastern issues.
He dropped Libya as a legal client in 1993 after intense criticism from some families of Pan Am 103 victims, the news media and the U.S. government.
During the hearing on Dec. 5 and 6, the board on professional responsibility argued that Sofaer's decision to represent Libya after working as State Department legal adviser from 1985 to 1990 was unethical and presented a conflict of interest. Specifically, Sofaer was charged with violating Rule 1.11 of the "Rules of Professional Conduct" by representing Moammar Khadafy's country after working closely on Libya-related matters for the U.S. government.
Upon leaving the State Department, Sofaer represented Libya on matters that were "the same as or substantially related" to those he handled as a government legal adviser," said Leonard Becker, D.C. bar counsel. This charge was refuted by Sofaer's attorney, David Isbell.
Sofaer's resignation from the State Department in June 1990 came at about the same time the U.S. government acquired evidence linking Libya to the Pan Am bombing. This was prior to the U.S. decision to indict two Libyan nationals, reportedly members of a government intelligence service, in November 1991 on charges of planting the explosives.
As the State Department's top lawyer, Sofaer was instrumental in a decision to bomb Tripoli, Libya, in 1985 and 1986 in response to terrorism reportedly linked to Khadafy's regime. After the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in 270 deaths, Sofaer was briefed regularly on the case. However, Sofaer claimed, he had no role in the actual investigation of Pan Am 103.
Sofaer also consulted the Justice Department regarding a subpoena filed by Pan Am against the United States after the bombing, according to Becker. Pan Am, which was being sued by family members of flight 103 victims, claimed the United States also was partially responsible for not preventing the bombing.
Sofaer said he reviewed and initialed a memorandum in response to the Pan Am subpoena.
He also acknowledged being privy to a private meeting in 1989 between then Secretary of State James Baker; Morris Busby, former head of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism; and Thomas Plaskett, chief executive officer of Pan Am.
Details of the meeting were vague. According to Busby's testimony, Plaskett called the meeting to discuss a Pan Am theory about the bombing. Busby did not reveal details of the "very sensitive" meeting other than to say it involved Frankfurt, Pan Am 103's last point of departure.
However, Becker hinted, Rep. James Trafficant (D-Ohio) spoke publicly about a rumor that "a government operation" had permitted an unaccompanied bag, carrying the bomb, to be loaded aboard Pan Am 103 in Frankfurt, Germany.
According to Sofaer, Pan Am's "theory" alleged the U.S. government was "complicitous and had [advance] knowledge about the Pan Am bombing." Sofaer said he and others in the government considered this theory "utter nonsense."
When Sofaer left the State Department in June 1990, he testified, the principal suspect for the bombing was not Libya but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization with offices in Syria. Immediately after the United States accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in the Persian Gulf, information surfaced about the IRGC and "how they got moving at setting up the Pan Am 103 bombing," Sofaer said.
A special committee, selected by the Libyan government, hired Sofaer in 1993 — for a retainer of $250,000 per month over three years — to help resolve issues growing out of the Pan Am bombing. Sofaer's job, he explained, was to seek "consentual resolutions" with regard to Libya's "obligation to compensate the victims and families" of flight 103 and to work out an extradition process for the two Libyan suspects "under terms acceptable to the United States and to Libya."
Regardless of Sofaer's intentions, he dropped the case and returned all fees to the Libyan government soon after news of his representation became public and recriminations erupted. The families of flight 103 victims had announced plans to picket the Washington offices of Sofaer's law firm, Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, shortly before he terminated his involvement in the case.
No ruling was issued by the hearing committee following two days of testimony, with the committee requesting more time to review court records. However, a decision is expected in the next few months. Sofaer is the first person accused of violating this rule, which is punishable by a formal reprimand or censure.