Keating 5 case's tangles are under sleazy surface

November 25, 1990|By Dan Fesperman

Washington For the cynical and jaded among us, the ethics verdict on the Keating Five senators has been in the books for several months now: Guilty. Get rid of the bums.

That's because, viewed in its worst light, the matter seems a simple and damning case of senators who took gobs of money from a political chum in exchange for de-clawing stubborn federal regulators.

The chum was Charles H. Keating Jr., chief of the late, un-great Lincoln Savings and Loan, whose institutional death will cost taxpayers $2.3 billion; and the senators sometimes seem to have carried out their favors with the energetic eagerness of tip-cadging errand boys.

Not a pretty picture, especially for Sens. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., and Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., who seem to have been busiest on Mr. Keating's behalf.

Only problem is, the evidence in the case -- box after box of it -- fuzzes that picture a great deal, especially when viewed as part of the unsavory but lawful system of fund raising that dominates life on Capitol Hill.

In other words, the verdict won't be as easy to reach as one might expect, even though the first four days of public hearings on the case have often made the cynical viewpoint even more alluring.

How else to react when Senator DeConcini begins his defense by shouting, waving his arms and spending more than two hours saying that it is his accusers, not the five senators, who have sinned?

He placed himself and Mr. Keating in league with Nobel laureate Mother Teresa, while depicting the reform-minded Common Cause organization, which filed the ethics complaint that brought on the case, as a greedy lobby in search of a fund-raising gimmick. His other villain was Robert Bennett, the special counsel investigating the case. Mr. DeConcini called Mr. Bennett a glory-hogging scalp hunter.

Such histrionics only obscure the strengths of the case for him and the other four senators, and it was left to Mr. Cranston's attorney, William W. Taylor III, to present a defense in calm, measured tones. Instead of speaking vaguely of a corrupt and broken system, he cited case law and Supreme Court opinions. As he proceeded, the six members of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics nodded knowingly at times.

Mr. Taylor's remarks, when pitted against the evidence and arguments laid out a few days earlier by Mr. Bennett, provide an apt outline of the points on which the case will turn for Senators Cranston, DeConcini and Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich. (The evidence against Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.,and John Glenn, D-Ohio, is so weak that Mr. Bennett has already indicated he sees no grounds for punishment.)

For starters, Mr. Taylor said, this case might not even have attracted public attention if the savings and loan crisis not occurred, with Lincoln's failure becoming a symbolic epicenter. "It's human nature to look for someone or something to blame, even for natural disasters," he said. "$2.3 billion is a lot of money. Somebody's at fault. It can't be the poor, underpaid regulators. It must be the senators."

Also, contrary to the perception among many, no one is accusing any of the senators of gaining personally from Mr. Keating's largess. "This case is not about funny book contracts or condominiums rented to the government or cash in a shoe box," Mr. Taylor said. "It is about whether the committee should recommend discipline because someone thinks my client drew the line of constituent service and agency oversight of a contributor at a different place than where they would draw the line."

But didn't the senators, as reported so often, receive about $1.35 million from Mr. Keating and his family and associates for their political committees? Yes. But that description, necessitated by the brevity of news columns, can be misleading.

Most of the amount, $850,000, went to voter registration efforts controlled by Mr. Cranston. Though it is naive to suggest that such committees don't benefit him in any way (voter registration efforts generally favor Democrats), they are also not nearly the same as a Cranston re-election fund.

An additional $346,000 of the amount went to campaign funds and political committees for Senators McCain and Glenn, who Mr. Bennett says shouldn't be investigated further. That leaves about $159,100 in Keating-related direct campaign contributions received by Senators Cranston, Riegle and DeConcini during the mid- and late-1980s. That's nothing to sneeze at, but hardly in the league with $1.3 million, and hardly much more than they got from other interest groups during the same period.

In addition, no one is suggesting that seeking to intervene with federal regulators is wrong or unethical. Mr. Bennett acknowledged the role as an important part of a congressman's work.

The issue here is how far a senator can go, and how strenuously he may intervene before his actions cross the line to impropriety.

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