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Killer, Junkie, Liar, Thief... 

... so why not lawyer? How our political elite tried and failed to get a law license for sister-killing Eben Gossage.

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
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Of all the historical figures considered quintessentially San Franciscan -- Herb Caen, Joe Alioto, Scott Newhall, et al. -- the most quintessential of all may have been Howard Luck Gossage. As the 1950s and '60s ad man who created Beethoven sweat shirts and a paper-airplane contest promoting Scientific American magazine, his commercial legacy was modest. But his intellectual legacy, which consisted of a deep contempt for his chosen field, made him the "Socrates of San Francisco," in the words of an Advertising Age homage.

Advertising, he once wrote, possesses "'a disregard for the decent opinion of mankind." It is a field "as curiously innocent of the shape of evil as a ten-year-old. There is no real comprehension of sin. The industry, it's true, is awash with condemnations of bad practice, but one gets the same feeling when a child evangelist preaches against fornication. It is unlikely that he knows what he is talking about.''

The intellectual house of mirrors Gossage lived in -- he thrived financially in a field dedicated to presenting things as they aren't, a field he claimed to despise -- is a quintessentially San Franciscan house.

San Francisco's reputation describes it as the most egalitarian and eclectic of places, yet it is an island where social class and political connections are crucial to prominence. It's a city whose mere name evokes the idea of leftist, Everyman-first political sensibilities; yet the city is run by a clubby, moneyed clique that always takes care of its own. San Francisco was the crucible of the 1960s national intellectual enlightenment, yet our city's political spawn now run, both here and in Sacramento, one of the most corrupt political machines in the country.

As confidant to Herb Caen and Tom Wolfe, Howard Luck Gossage was America's most literary-minded ad man. As the man who did charity ad work for the early Sierra Club, along with quixotic efforts to end the Vietnam War with newspaper ads, he was an intellectual patron to San Francisco's current clique of political leaders. So it is right and just and good that his biological legacy, the killer Eben Gossage, would become a parable for the culture of hypocrisy we now live in San Francisco.


In 1969, at the height of his ad-writing powers and amid his anti-war campaign, Howard Luck Gossage died of leukemia. Eben and his sister, Amy, split their father's $50,000 life insurance policy, with Eben using his half to buy four months' worth of heroin. Eben then forged checks in his mother's and grandmother's names. Eben's mother agreed to aid the prosecution of Eben, and proceeded to drink herself to death. Eben spent nine months in Marin County Jail, got out, and took to wheedling heroin money from his sister, whose lissome physical beauty had allowed her to acquire a string of older boyfriends who had cash to spare.

On a winter morning in 1975, after an argument over money the previous evening, Eben returned to his sister's Telegraph Hill apartment and, he later told police, found her door locked. He called the building's manager, and together they discovered Amy Gossage's mutilated body, undressed but for panties and a bloody T-shirt. Some 17 blows with a hammer had smashed her right temple and fractured her jaw. Her neck, side, and back were perforated with 45 shallow stab wounds, which were later found to have been made after she was dead. Eben acted shocked by the scene, but police searched his apartment, and found a cardboard box containing a blood-covered hammer, a pair of bloody scissors, and a wad of bloodstained clothes. Eben's attorney, LeRue Grim, entered a plea of not guilty, suggesting drug dealers had killed Amy. Framing Gossage was "the diabolical sort of thing a drug dealer who hadn't been paid might do," Grim was quoted as saying.

Eben pleaded not guilty to a murder charge, claiming he had killed his sister in self-defense; a jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter. After serving a 2-1/2-year prison sentence, he went back to stealing and heroin use. In 1978, he was found guilty of reckless driving and, later, driving while intoxicated. In 1981, Eben was convicted of possession of heroin and driving while under the influence. In 1982 theft charges were dropped after Eben paid the victim compensation for the stolen goods. Eben then stole a watch from somebody else, and was sent back to jail.

Upon his parole in 1984, Eben reformed. He stopped using drugs and alcohol, finished college, and entered Golden Gate University Law School, having admired the skill with which Grim had handled his earlier case. He earned his degree in 1991, passed the bar exam in 1993, and applied for a law license to the California State Bar, beginning a process that ended in a state Supreme Court decision last week to endorse reason, and to deny Eben Gossage the right to practice law.

Although killers and thugs have become lawyers in the past -- our own district attorney, after all, pleaded guilty to battery when he was young -- Eben will not become a lawyer, the court decided. In coming to this decision, the court did not reach back into the past and revisit Eben's hammer tattoo on his sister's head. Instead, the court focused on his more recent conduct, which included multiple bench warrants -- i.e., warrants issued by judges who were perturbed by his failure to show up in court as ordered -- that Eben had earned for himself while actually attending law school. Also, the Supreme Court took notice that on his Bar application, which is signed under penalty of perjury, Eben failed to list more than half of the 17 criminal convictions that have attached, through the years, to his name.

These kinds of poor choices might have sunk any other candidate for the bar long before the matter reached the Supreme Court. But the younger Gossage is the scion of a San Francisco political family and a successful developer, and he received the full-throated support of San Francisco's political class. San Francisco political leaders lined up to testify on Eben's behalf. State Senate head John Burton, S.F. District Attorney Terence Hallinan, Supervisor Sue Bierman, and Public Defender Jeff Brown all either appeared or filed affidavits on behalf of Eben. And none seems the least bit chagrined about putting political weight behind a killer, junkie, thief, scofflaw, and proven liar.

In testifying on Eben Gossage's behalf, San Francisco politicians described Eben in Paulist terms, portraying him as a character who has risen from the ashes of moral turbidity to the commanding heights of goodness. Bierman has touted Eben's commitment to the environment, and his visits to an elderly mutual friend. Others who spoke to me described his new verve for social activism in the tradition of his father. In fact, in his state Bar case, Eben said that he wanted a Bar card so he could practice environmental law.

And it is in his purported environmental activism that Eben Gossage may best illustrate the Joseph Conrad universe that his father was a spokesman for, and that San Francisco is the center of, a universe where bad is good and right is wrong and the moral compass spins like a propeller whenever the political winds blow in a certain way.

In 1996, you see, Eben formed a nonprofit called the Corporation for Clean Air, named himself as president, and then hired attorneys. He formed the corporation to exploit Proposition 65, a measure, approved by voters in 1987, that allows private citizens to file environmental lawsuits on the public's behalf.

In a field of environmental law rife with spurious lawsuits, Eben Gossage's nonprofit corporation has become famous. One such suit, filed against Bekins Van Moving and Storage Inc. and 24 co-defendants, claimed that movers, shuttle bus operators, and other businesses that use diesel trucks had harmed the public by not attaching stickers to their vehicles to warn of the dangers of diesel smoke. It is the only Proposition 65 lawsuit of its time that attorneys who specialize in this kind of law can recall being summarily dismissed by a judge. Eben's theory -- that truck operators should be liable for environmental health damage -- was unsupportable by facts, the judge said. The suit was so meritless, in fact, that the state attorney general filed an unsolicited eight-page letter laying out the factual grounds for dismissal of the suit.


San Francisco's political machine didn't stop at pulling every possible political string to try to get a law license for a killer, junkie, liar, and thief. State Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton actually helped change the way judges on the State Bar Court are chosen, part of an apparent fit of pique over one judge's determination that Eben Gossage was morally unfit to practice law.

Although the State Bar Court initially approved Eben's license applica-tion, with just one dissenting opinion out of the court's five judges, the state Bar Association appealed this decision to the California Supreme Court, which ultimately rejected his application for admission to the Bar. There are some people, it seems, whom even lawyers won't allow in their club.

In addition to his written support for Eben's application for a Bar card, Burton pushed a bill through the Legislature that eliminates the post of the State Bar Court judge who wrote the dissenting opinion (eventually endorsed by the Supreme Court) that Eben should not get a bar card. The legislation eliminates the post of non-lawyer judge Kent Norian, while turning several more Bar Court seats into political appointments. This is a disaster for the separation of judicial powers in California. Eliminating Norian's non-lawyer position on the bench will enhance the Bar's reputation as a club of lawyers judging other lawyers.

Where all judges admitting California lawyers into the Bar used to be appointed by the Supreme Court, thanks to Burton's legislation three of them will be appointed -- and reappointed -- by the governor and the Legislature. In effect, this will turn the Bar Court, which also hears disciplinary cases against lawyers, into a political cudgel, wielded by the party that controls the Legislature and governorship against any uppity lawyer in California.

As a result, the Gossage case's legacy will be one of increased political corruption in Sacramento, says Robert Fellmeth, director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego Law School.

"Combine the reappointment power with the fact there are lawyers everywhere seeking favors, and the fact there are no campaign contribution limits whatsoever, then you add to that the fact that the speaker of the Assembly and the president pro tempore engage regularly in ex parte contacts with special interests as part of their job, and you have a recipe for corruption," Fellmeth tells me. "One of the things you want to do when you're in a political battle is get your opponent in trouble. Candidates love to accuse their opponents of ethical breaches, and the practice of law is fraught with ethical breaches."

Burton won't comment on the Gossage case. Eben's attorney, Ephraim Margolin, didn't return my call. But in an interview with the legal publication The Recorder, Margolin seemed to affirm critics' assertion that the Gossage case inspired Burton's meddling in the Bar selection process: "Burton saw the Bar operating from the inside," said Margolin. "It's possible that he left with strong feelings that things aren't as they should be."

And it's possible that Burton left the Gossage affair with a strong desire to manipulate the judicial system, so it would be easier the next time he wanted to help a political ally.

So San Francisco, California politics and San Francisco, California lawyering will become just a little bit more like the advertising that Howard Luck Gossage so fondly despised: fields dedicated to presenting things as they aren't, "as curiously innocent of the shape of evil as a ten-year-old."

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Matt Smith

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