WASHINGTON -- It was Day Three for the Keating Five before the Senate Ethics Committee yesterday, and it was Sen. Dennis DeConcini's turn to step to the microphone and defend himself against charges of influence peddling.
Mr. DeConcini, D-Ariz., responded vigorously and loudly to the challenge.
He shouted, waved his arms and invoked the good name of Mother Teresa, onetime winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He praised the lofty cause of constituent service, then pointed menacingly, rapped the lectern and called committee special counsel Robert Bennett a prosecutor in search of senatorial scalps.
He scorned the would-be reformers of Common Cause, whose official complaint brought on these hearings, as a bunch of money-grubbers hoping to boost membership by ruining the reputation of Congress. He even took a few potshots at his fellow Arizona senator, Republican John McCain, who also stands accused of misdeeds but has been virtually exonerated by Mr. Bennett's investigation.
Two and a half hours after he began, Mr. DeConcini wrapped up his remarks with a theme heard often in these proceedings, saying it is the system that is corrupt, not himself or the other four senators -- Alan Cranston, D-Calif., Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich., John Glenn, D-Ohio, and Mr. McCain.
"I wish I'd kept a notebook of all the senators, including a couple on this committee, who have said, 'But for the grace of God, there go I or you,' " Mr. DeConcini said. "Gentlemen, we cannot continue to operate this way in this institution. We need to change. . . . We need, perhaps, to have some rules. . . . This senator has done nothing wrong."
Mr. Bennett, who presented his detailed summary of evidence last week in an even tone and cadence, responded to the remarks of Mr. DeConcini and the other senators and lawyers with uncharacteristic volume and animation.
"I've been asked to do a job and I've done it," Mr. Bennett said. "I feel like I'm in a lion's den, and I feel, if my arms and legs were tied behind my back, and Senator DeConcini swung that big bat of his at my head and I ducked, he would say, 'Ha, ha, you're acting like a prosecutor again.'
"The issue in this case is not me. It is not Common Cause. The issue in this case is the conduct of the senators."
The conduct in question mostly involves the senators' meetings in April 1987 with federal banking regulators on behalf of savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr., who had asked the lawmakers to intervene when he thought regulators were getting too tough with him and his thrift, Lincoln Savings and Loan.
Among them, the senators received some $1.3 million in contributions for their campaign funds or for political committees they oversaw. Mr. Bennett said his evidence suggests that Mr. Cranston and Mr. DeConcini were probably the most industrious in helping Mr. Keating, continuing to do favors for him even after they learned he was under criminal investigation.
Eventually, in 1989, Lincoln went belly up and into federal conservatorship, and it is now $2.3 billion in the red.
Mr. Bennett depicted Mr. DeConcini as especially eager in the way he ran errands for Mr. Keating while accepting campaign fund-raising help.
Mr. DeConcini said that that is the way life is in Washington: You help constituents, great and small, and if they happen to give you a contribution, then all the better for both sides.
Back in 1987, Mr. DeConcini said, Mr. Keating didn't have the bad reputation he has now, and there was no national uproar over a savings and loan crisis with a $500 billion price tag. He said Mr. Keating was known more as an international philanthropist, and he recalled yesterday -- to some snickering -- that when he first met Mother Teresa in Washington, "The first thing she said was, 'How is my good friend Charlie Keating?' "
As for why Common Cause questioned his conduct in the matter, he said, "They're trying to raise money . . . and I think it's a travesty in and of itself."
As to Mr. McCain, Mr. DeConcini implied that his fellow senator was more enthusiastic about helping Mr. Keating than he has let on.
He then accused Mr. Bennett of tilting and distorting evidence.
"He wants a victory," Mr. DeConcini said. "He wants to nail somebody. He wants to get somebody, I'm sorry to say. He wants another trophy on the wall."
To that, Mr. Bennett responded, "The only trophy I want is a real big brown trout."