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Drug Smuggler Close to Becoming a Lawyer

December 19, 1994

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ A man who masterminded the smuggling of 11 tons of marijuana and then avoided prison by caring for AIDS patients in his home is two steps away from becoming a lawyer in Massachusetts.

The next-to-last hurdle for Harvey Prager comes at a hearing of the five- member Board of Bar Examiners on Thursday.

The panel will decide whether the Phi Beta Kappa scholar turned drug smuggler has been rehabilitated during the seven years since he was arrested as a fugitive living comfortably in London. The panel’s recommendation will go to Massachusetts’ highest court.

″It’s ridiculous. He couldn’t be a security guard, but he can be a lawyer,″ fumed Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood. ″It’s a sad state of affairs.″

Prager, 47, attended law school at the University of Maine and ultimately earned a coveted clerkship to the Maine Supreme Court while serving a five- year sentence that required him to care for AIDS patients in his home in Portland.

He passed the bar exam, but because of his criminal record, he must appear before the examiners to establish his moral fitness to practice law.

Supporters say he has worked hard, proved his moral character and now deserves another chance.

″I frankly don’t understand the tremendous emotion that this issue seems to engender,″ said Julian Sweet, a lawyer who represented Prager on the drug charges.

Prager was an unlikely drug smuggler, having graduated with high marks from prestigious Bowdoin College. He said in his application to the bar that he started smoking marijuana in graduate school at Harvard. He eventually dropped out and got involved in smuggling after he and some friends refurbished a boat.

A federal indictment in 1984 turned him into a fugitive. He was arrested after authorities investigating a multimillion-dollar heist at a safe-deposit center in London found false identity papers in a box that Prager had rented.

Back in Maine, Prager persuaded a federal judge known for his harsh sentences to let him open an AIDS hospice.

Prager, who now lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and young child, refused to be interviewed. The lawyer who will represent him at the hearing, Michael E. Mone, said he doesn’t know what kind of law Prager wants to practice.

″Bringing Harvey Prager into the law profession just adds to the perception in the public that it’s on par perhaps with a used car salesman,″ said Dr. Owen Pickus, an AIDS specialist who had once backed Prager’s hospice plan but now contends he was hoodwinked.

Pickus said that Prager did his best to shirk his responsibilities and that Prager’s wife ended up performing much of the care for the dying wards while her husband attended law school.

Once, Prager declined to take one of Pickus’ patients into his home because he was traveling to Paris, the doctor said. Another time, it was because he and his wife were expecting a baby.

″His goal was to circumvent the courts, myself and the AIDS population by using chicanery to allow himself to become a full-time law student for three years,″ Pickus said.

But Prager also has plenty of supporters. Letters of support in his file include one from Joseph H. Groff III, a former assistant U.S. attorney who negotiated Prager’s plea bargain.

And Mone, who sponsored Prager in his bid to become a lawyer in Massachusetts, is himself a former president of the Massachusetts bar.

Prager wouldn’t be the first convicted felon allowed to enter the legal profession. ″Draft evasion to arson, you name it, they’ve either been admitted or readmitted,″ Mone said.

Mone noted also that the both the sentencing judge and probation authorities agreed that Prager had followed though on his commitment at the AIDS hospice.