Top Harvard official accused of ethics breach over $42M paid to his own law firm

Top Harvard official accused of ethics breach over $42M paid to his own law firm

One of Harvard’s former top officials was named in two ethics complaints over the Ivy League college paying his law firm nearly $42 million while he served on the school’s governing board.

William Lee and Harvard University could face an investigation by the Massachusetts attorney general over whether the school was right to pay his firm, Wilmer Hale, between 2011 and 2022, when he was serving as one of the school’s most senior leaders.

The Post has learned that the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers and the state’s attorney general have been sent formal complaints accusing Lee of “possible conflict of interest by trustee/director with pecuniary interest in service provider to Harvard.”

Wilmer Hale lawyer and former Harvard Corporation chair William Lee

A law firm connected to William Lee, a former chair of the Harvard Corporation, billed the school nearly $42 million while Lee was on the school’s governing board. Wilmer Hale LLP

Both complaints have been obtained by The Post.

Lee’s most recent known work for Harvard included helping former president Claudine Gay prepare for her disastrous appearance before a Congressional committee probing antisemitism on campus in December when she said that whether calling for the death of Jews broke college rules depended on “context,” according to the Harvard Crimson.

The embattled Gay, the school’s first black president, resigned in January amid allegations of plagiarism, after less than six months in the top job.

Lee, who graduated from Harvard in 1972, served on the university’s board of directors from July 2010 to June 2022, and was senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation from 2014 to 2022.

During the time that he served on the Harvard Corporation board, Lee was also a partner at the powerhouse law firm. He was co-managing partner between 2004 and 2011.

Pro-Palestinian demonstration at Harvard

Harvard has faced a barrage of criticisms for not clamping down on antisemitism since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel. Lawyers from the Wilmer Hale law firm advised its former president during a disastrous appearance before Congress in December. AFP via Getty Images

Wilmer Hale served as Harvard’s outside counsel in the landmark affirmative action case “Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard,” which was filed in 2014.

Lee served as Harvard’s outside counsel during the trial court phase of the case, until the initial verdict in 2019.

The case was decided by the US Supreme Court in June 2023 in the plaintiff’s favor.

Former Harvard President Claudine Gay

Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first black president, resigned in January amid allegations of plagiarism and her testimony to Congress over antisemitism at the Ivy League school. AP

During the 2019 fiscal year alone, Wilmer Hale billed Harvard more than $11 million, according to the complaint to the AG.

As of June 2023, Harvard had paid out more than $27 million in legal fees related to the case, Bloomberg reported, in which the high court held that race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

View of Harvard University

Embattled Harvard University is facing ethical questions about whether the former leader of its governing board had a conflict of interest when the school hired his powerhouse law firm. AP

“Considering the vast resources entrusted to Harvard as a Massachusetts nonprofit corporation, do the circumstances with Bill Lee and Wilmer Hale raise questions about whether Harvard and its board have the necessary corporate governance procedures to avoid conflicts of interest, conflicts of duty or similar issues,” the complaint, which is anonymous, to the Massachusetts attorney general says.

The complaint alleges that “as a member/chairperson of the board, Bill Lee oversaw the Harvard officers and departments that normally manage relationships with outside law firms, such as the university’s general counsel.”

Lee stepped down from the Harvard board in May 2022 and in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, said the things he will miss most are “the personal relationships” with a host of the school’s leaders, including its general counsel.

Was your organization a party to any transaction in which any of its officers, directors or trustees has a material financial interest, or did any officer, director or trustee receive anything of value not reported as compensation?

Harvard answered “No” to a question on an annual form required by the Attorney General in 2019 on whether a trustee or director had “a material financial interest” that was not reported as compensation despite paying William Lee’s firm $11 million that year. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Office of the Attorney General

Despite billing Wilmer Hale millions for legal work between 2011 and 2019, Harvard’s board of directors consistently answered “No” to a question on its annual disclosures to the state about whether a trustee had “a material financial interest” that was not reported as compensation, public documents show.

The Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers told The Post Wednesday that they could neither confirm nor deny whether a complaint against an attorney had been received. “It’s confidential,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesman for the Massachusetts AG said their office had received the complaint “but cannot comment on, confirm, or deny an investigation.”

Neither Lee nor Harvard returned requests for comment Wednesday.


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