WASHINGTON -- The two ranking members of the Senate Ethics Committee indicated yesterday they're having trouble finding anything improper about the behavior of their colleagues in the influence peddling case of the "Keating Five" senators.
The five senators being investigated -- Alan Cranston, D-Calif., Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., John Glenn, D-Ohio, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich. -- are accused of improperly intervening with federal banking regulators on behalf of savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr., who in turn contributed $1.3 million to their re-election campaigns and political committees.
But Howell Heflin, D-Ala., chairman of the six-member committee, suggested that it is the campaign fund-raising system, not the senators, that may need reforming.
A few minutes later, the vice chairman, Warren B. Rudman, R-N.H., said the key issue in the case may be the propriety of the senators' actions in a single 1987 meeting with regulators, rather than whether there is a link between those actions and Mr. Keating's contributions. On that key point Mr. Rudman solicited the opinion of a respected fellow senator, Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who testified that the actions were proper.
Mr. Heflin and Mr. Rudman made their remarks during questioning of Mr. Inouye, who had been called as a witness by Mr. DeConcini's attorney. Their comments seem to be good news for both Mr. DeConcini and Mr. Cranston, who have become the main focus of the case. Committee special counsel Robert Bennett has already recommended that no further action be taken against Mr. Glenn and Mr. McCain, and he has faulted Mr. Riegle for little more than a poor memory.
Mr. Bennett has cited Senator Cranston for four large political contributions from Mr. Keating linked "by time and circumstance" to the senator's actions on Mr. Keating's behalf, and Mr. Heflin asked several hypothetical questions on the propriety of such links.
He asked Mr. Inouye whether a perception problem might arise if a senator acted with "vigor and aggressiveness" on behalf of a position also favored by a major contributor.
"Mr. Chairman, the generations may have passed me by," Mr. Inouye answered, "but until recently it was considered a virtue or quality of a senator or any legislator to be a fighter."
After another similar exchange, Mr. Heflin said, "In reviewing this, the thought occurs to me that as long as there are contributors and there are official acts, and if the official act was in the affirmative with the position of the contributor, then we've got problems with perception."
He then pointed out that it was generally left up to the voters to decide whether such perceptions matter, and he asked, "Then in order to eliminate any problems of perception, then some way or another you're going to have to have campaign reform that eliminates contributions?"
"Absolutely correct, sir," Mr. Inouye responded.
Mr. Rudman followed, telling Mr. Inouye, "It seems to me that after listening to a lot of testimony for a number of days that one of the central -- if not the central -- issue is whether or not any senator did anything in the meetings [with regulators] of April 2 and April 9 that was improper."
At the meetings in question, Mr. DeConcini allegedly led the way for his colleagues on behalf of Mr. Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan Association.