The US in Transition / Women at the helm: 2: Top justice nominee 'broke immigrant law'

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IT SEEMED almost too good to be true. On Christmas Eve, at the tender age of 40, Zoe Baird crowned a dazzling ascent through legal America by being named as Bill Clinton's Attorney General. For the first time a woman would become the country's top law enforcement officer - for the first time a woman would fill one of the 'Big Four' cabinet jobs, of Treasury, State, Defence and Justice.

But a most inconvenient fact has emerged: that Mrs Baird, whose many reponsibilities will include supervision of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, employed for two years a Peruvian couple illegally resident in the United States. Whether yesterday's revelation by the New York Times will doom her prospects, is unclear. But certainly it is a problem Mr Clinton can do without.

All along, the appointment of Mrs Baird spoke volumes about the Clinton method. From the outset he was determined a woman would be Attorney General, part of a cabinet that would 'look like America'. But the little-known corporate lawyer, senior counsel for General Electric (GE) and then the giant Aetna insurance group, was not a fancied contender. In retrospect, her choice is rather less mystifying.

In the Democratic circles that matter she has long been esteemed. One early mentor was Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel under Jimmy Carter and still a quintessential Washington fixer. Later Mrs Baird worked for the prestigious law firm of O'Melveny and Myer, one of whose senior partners was Warren Christopher, named as Secretary of State.

Everyone who has encountered her praises Mrs Baird's intellect and management skills. And if she is confirmed in her new post, she will need every ounce of them. No federal agency's reputation has emerged more tarnished from the Reagan/Bush years than the Justice Department. Of late, it has seemed at best a vehicle of conservative Republican ideology; at worst a positive obstructor of the justice it was supposed to uphold.

Mr Clinton described the department as 'poorly administered and beset by infighting'. Its sloth in the BCCI affair was odd. It is feuding with the CIA over the alleged cover-up of government involvement in the huge loans advanced to Iraq by an Italian bank in Atlanta. William Sessions, the FBI director and as such one of its most senior officials, is under an internal ethics investigation.

All this makes Mrs Baird's current spot of bother doubly embarrassing. The FBI is now examining whether she broke the law in employing the Peruvians. Such practice is widespread, and employers are rarely prosecuted. But an Attorney General-designate, who must oversee immigration rules?

But even before this flap, her service as a high-powered corporate lawyer had raised other concerns. Wasn't this supposed to be a 'different' administration, independent of lobbyists and outside interests? In fact, 13 of the 18 cabinet members are lawyers. Several have links to big business.

At GE, Mrs Baird supported controversial proposals to reduce companies' exposure to fraud and negligence suits. But, says Charles Grassley, a Republican senator and a member of the Judiciary Committee which will be grilling her next week: 'After January 20, she's working for the taxpayer, not GE. I want to make sure she leaves all of GE in Connecticut.'

(Photograph omitted)