WHEN Robert D'Agostino finished a monitoring visit of three federally funded legal-aid programs in 1985, he came back with bad news for his conservative Republican friends who wanted to abolish the Legal Services Corporation. ``The Reagan administration has lost the fight over Legal Services,'' the former Justice Department aide wrote to one of the agency's strongest critics, GOP Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. ``There is no constituency to abolish it.''
But Mr. D'Agostino offered a second-best strategy: Use control of the agency itself to put pressure on local programs. ``For the first time, I feel that the fight will be taken to the local areas,'' D'Agostino, now a lawyer in Atlanta, wrote. ``We must get out there and mix it up with the left.''
In the four years since, the Reagan-appointed board that oversees the Legal Services Corporation has come up with an array of rules, changes, and administrative actions to make life difficult for lawyers who provide legal aid to the poor.
Early this year, the 325 programs that receive funding from Legal Services were informed that they would be issued grants for a four-month period rather than full-year grants as had been the practice. In March and April, the agency's board came up with two new rules to contribute to the financial uncertainties of programs already hard hit by the 40 percent cut, measured in constant dollars, in federal help for legal-aid programs since 1981.
First, the board voted to require programs that earn substantial amounts in court-awarded attorneys' fees to relinquish 75 percent of any amount over $100,000. Had the rule been in effect last year, a dozen or so of the most aggressive programs would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The conservative majority on the board followed with a rule to limit what local programs can do with privately raised funds. Some foundations give grants for providing legal aid to people without regard to poverty guidelines - the elderly, for example, or victims of domestic violence. Under the new rule, however, programs receiving the grants can't use private funds to represent anyone above the general poverty guidelines.
Also, for the first time the board voted to bar legal-aid programs from handling an entire category of cases: suits involving redistricting issues or challenges to the 1990 federal census. The rule was advocated most forcefully by the board's chairman, Michael Wallace, a Jackson, Miss., lawyer. Mr. Wallace has made clear his distaste for use of the law to challenge at-large electoral systems or municipal annexation plans that operate to limit the election of black officeholders.
The board adopted the rules in the face of a warning from Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin, who warned that the changes would ``have the effect ... of harassing, demoralizing, and overregulating'' legal-aid programs.
That would appear precisely to be the current board's intention. Last summer it voted to oust the then-president of the corporation, John H. Bayly Jr. On a 6-5 vote, the board chose as his successor Terrance J. Wear. Mr. Wear was a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who led a filibuster against creating the agency in 1974 and remains an unyielding critic of legal-aid programs.
Wear delights in picturing legal-aid offices as rife with financial and management problems, but has produced only a handful of minor incidents in substantiation. He and Wallace trooped up to Capitol Hill in March to declare that the agency's status as an independent corporation may be unconstitutional and that it should be restructured as a regular executive-branch agency.
In the past few weeks, an even more ominous threat has surfaced: the prospects of a new board dominated even more strongly by right-wing ideologues with no support for legal aid to the poor.
Wallace, Wear, and an aide, James M. Wootton, have come up with a list of 11 potential nominees which includes a one-time aide to a conservative interest group that favors abolishing Legal Services, three people with ties to agricultural interests that are frequently opposed by legal-aid lawyers, a legislator who was one of the most conservative members of the president's commission on AIDS, and a black economist who blames limitations upon minority advancement on economic regulations rather than racial discrimination. No one on the list has ever worked full time as a legal-aid lawyer.
Wallace, Wear, et al. continue to spread the myth that legal-aid lawyers are pursuing a political agenda rather than helping the poor resolve ``ordinary day-to-day legal problems.'' In fact, it is the wrecking crew at the top of Legal Services that has a political agenda - with no regard to the effect on the underpaid, overworked lawyers who toil daily in the unglamorous field of poverty law.
As a presidential candidate, George Bush said he was ``strongly committed'' to providing legal aid to the poor. That commitment hasn't been translated into action. Mr. Bush recommended no funding for Legal Services in his revised budget, and thus far he has left in place a board that seems intent on sabotaging the program. Local legal-aid programs are watching to see what a kinder and gentler President will do to help them.