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Experts: Lawyer's Representation of Jailed Pastor, Trump Poses No Ethics Issue


FILE - A representative of the American Center for Law and Justice says attorney Jay Sekulow, above, is representing President Donald Trump in his personal capacity and has been representing jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson in his ACLJ role.

A Washington lawyer's simultaneous representation of President Donald Trump and a jailed American pastor in Turkey doesn't pose an ethical issue as long as his work for one doesn't undermine the other, legal experts say.

Jay Sekulow, founder and chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), had been representing Andrew Brunson for months when he went to the White House to lobby Trump to press Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the case. He began representing Trump soon afterward.

Brunson, a native of North Carolina who has lived in Turkey with wife, Norine, for 23 years, were arrested for alleged immigration violations in early October. She was released 13 days later, while his charges have been upgraded to supporting terrorism.

Gene Kapp, media director for ACLJ, which focuses on conservative issues, told VOA that Sekulow is representing Trump in his personal capacity and has been representing Brunson in his ACLJ role.

"His work as a member of the president's legal team is not connected to his work at the ACLJ and the ongoing efforts to get Pastor Brunson released," Kapp said, adding that Sekulow does not charge Brunson.

On his radio show on May 19, Sekulow said he met with the president and others at the White House "for over an hour" the day before, his second visit in two weeks.

"I anticipate there will be a release soon," Sekulow said, adding that his group was working with Congress, the State Department and White House.

FILE - Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Pennsylvania, Sept. 24, 2013.
FILE - Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Pennsylvania, Sept. 24, 2013.

Gulen connection alleged

A column four days later in Takvim, a pro-government Turkish newspaper, suggested that Brunson was an American spy who had been working with Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who Ankara claims masterminded a coup attempt last July 15, and supporting the PKK, a banned Kurdish militant group. Kapp called the allegations bogus.

U.S. relations with Turkey have soured recently over a number of issues, including Turkey's unsuccessful efforts to get the U.S. to hand over Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, and Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule.

There has been no obvious recent movement in Brunson's case. Turkish media have suggested that he is being held as leverage for Gulen's extradition.

"Andrew is extremely discouraged and really really needs your prayers!" Norine said in a May 27 post on the couple's Facebook page.

Kapp said the ACLJ is continuing to do everything it can, in the U.S. and Turkey, to obtain the pastor's release.

"We are very concerned about his health," Kapp said. "He is being held in a cell built for eight people but houses 22."

Brunson's case has drawn attention in Congress, too. In February, a bipartisan letter from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, signed by 78 lawmakers, called for Brunson's unconditional release.

William Hodes, a legal ethics expert and professor of law emeritus at Indiana University, said he didn't see Sekulow's representation of Trump and Brunson as an ethical problem.

FILE - Andrew Brunson, an American who has been a Protestant missionary in Turkey for more than 20 years, is shown with his wife, Norine Brunson, in this undated photo.
FILE - Andrew Brunson, an American who has been a Protestant missionary in Turkey for more than 20 years, is shown with his wife, Norine Brunson, in this undated photo.

"This lawyer's two clients are not adverse to each other, and it is hard to see how one client would fear that his confidences would be leaked to the other to the first client's detriment," Hodes said.

Communication advised

But Hodes added it's possible that Brunson could become irked if he felt Trump wasn't doing enough or working quickly enough, while Trump might have diplomatic reasons to go slowly.

"Lawyers have a lot of different clients with lots of different interests, but lawyers do have to avoid a conflict of interest between the clients," said Richard Painter, who served as former President George W. Bush's White House ethics czar.

In this instance, Sekulow needs to talk to both clients and make sure they don't object to his dual representation, and ensure that the work he's doing for one doesn't undermine his representation of the other, said Painter, who teaches law at the University of Minnesota.

A June 7 article in The Washington Post said Sekulow has built a powerful charity empire leading a team of ACLJ attorneys who jump into high-profile court cases over such issues as religious liberty and abortion rights. It said Sekulow's family or their companies received nearly $230 million in charitable donations in 2011-15.

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