Five years after leaving the post of U.S. secretary of the interior, William P. Clark Jr. is again working on department business--but now he's helping an old friend fight for more money in a real estate deal with Clark's old agency.
Clark maintains that he has not taken an advocate's position in the talks, instead acting as a "friend of the court" in Oxnard attorney Francis Gherini's negotiations with the National Park Service over a 6,264-acre property on Santa Cruz Island. Once the Park Service acquires it, the property will become part of Channel Islands National Park.
No one has challenged the legality of Clark's actions, but several public and private officials see Clark as a key player on Gherini's side in the talks. And that, environmentalists say, puts Clark among the several former Reagan Administration officials to make use of their previous offices in "revolving door" arrangements with private interests.
"There is a regular revolving door between the former secretary of the interior and developers. It's the all-too-frequent pattern that has emerged," said Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club's San Francisco-based director of conservation field services.
Noting the business interests of other former interior secretaries, including James Watt's work with a development project in Montana, Hamilton said he was dismayed by Clark's role in the Gherini Ranch talks, but not surprised.
In the federal bureaucracy, the National Park Service falls within the Department of the Interior, which Clark headed from 1983 to 1985.
Clark now spends much of his time at his ranch in Paso Robles and works as an attorney associated with the firm Rogers & Welk. He traces his friendship with Gherini to 1958, when they shared a law office on A Street in Oxnard.
"I try not to take an advocacy position among friends," Clark told The Times earlier this month. "Not only have the Gherinis been colleagues and friends for generations, but the National Park Service is a friend as well."
In that conversation, Clark said he was not representing Gherini in connection with the island.
But Ed Haberlin, chief of the division of land resources for the National Park Service's Western region, said he has met personally with Clark in San Francisco to discuss Gherini's position on the property. And Gherini and his attorneys have told a Santa Barbara Superior Court twice since April 24 that Clark has represented him in talks with the Park Service.
In a document filed April 24, Gherini and attorney Robert Bruce England noted that in late September, 1989, Gherini "employed the Honorable William P. Clark Jr. to represent respondent in negotiations with the National Park Service" over the Santa Cruz property.
And in testimony April 30, England told the court that Gherini "is presently conducting his negotiations through Justice Clark for the sale of his quarter interest."
Clark's response: "You asked if I was representing Francis as attorney, and the answer is no. I have had a couple of phone conversations."
Clark said that when he was in San Francisco last year he sat down with Haberlin and Gherini as what the two "have characterized as a friend of the court, which is a role I have played for friends. But that is not a legal representation--no fee, for instance."
Others involved in the talks, however, said that distinction has not been clear.
Haberlin said he had understood that Clark was acting as Gherini's representative in negotiations.
Channel Islands National Park Supt. C. Mack Shaver, said Clark's name "comes up every time we talk to someone in Washington" about the island.
And U.S. Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino, R-Ventura, said "it's a well-known fact that Clark has some interest for Francis Gherini." Lagomarsino added that he saw no impropriety in that.
Federal conflict-of-interest laws bar former senior executive branch officials from any contacts with their former agencies within one year of their departure.
Those laws, said U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Doug Tillett, also bar officials from ever representing any other person or company before the federal government on any matter involving specific parties with whom they were personally involved during their government tenure.
A June 18, 1984, "Dear Bill" letter to the interior secretary from Francis Gherini suggests that the Gherini family tried to get Clark personally involved, requesting a meeting and raising concerns over federal estate taxes and federal appropriation plans. But John Gherini recalled that Clark "did nothing" in response to that letter, and the July 13, 1984, reply to Francis Gherini from Park Service Director Mary Lou Grier indicates that no meeting was arranged.
Clark said he has always been careful to avoid both conflict of interest and the appearance of one.
"He's a pleasant, unassuming fellow," said Haberlin of Clark, adding that the former interior secretary "was careful not to play those kinds of games. . . . He's never exercised any pressure or undue sway."
Sierra Club officials took a dimmer view of Clark's role.
"That's unfortunate," said Sierra Club Southern California Regional Representative Bob Hattoy, who accused Clark of "trying to shake down the taxpayers to make more money for a private property owner."
Haberlin, a longtime veteran in the Park Service's San Francisco offices, said the Gherini property was a seldom-discussed issue until last year, because until 1986 officials were busy with the purchase of nearby Santa Rosa Island and after that "everybody knew we had no money."
But last year, Park Service officials made a tentative offer of roughly $2,400 per acre for the 6,264-acre property. On April 25, other Gherini family members sold one share for $3.87 million. They are expected to sell two more this year or next. But Francis Gherini, who controls the last share, has said he plans to hold out for more money.
About $14.5 million for further island acquisitions is set aside in President Bush's budget for the next fiscal year, but has not yet been backed by Congress.
Clark, 58, was born in Oxnard. The office he shared with Francis Gherini in 1958 was his first law practice. He went on to serve as California Gov. Ronald Reagan's chief of staff from 1966 to 1969, as a California Superior Court judge from 1969 to 1971, and a state Supreme Court Justice from 1973 to 1981.
During his state Supreme Court tenure, Clark said, he hired Gherini's daughter Andrea as a clerk.
In 1982 President Reagan named Clark national security adviser. The following year, the president reassigned Clark to succeed James Watt as interior secretary. In 1985, Clark left that position and returned to private life.