Vigorous but Not Improper?

December 09, 1990

Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii defended the Keating Five this week, saying of those five senators' unprecedented joint pressuring of federal regulators in behalf of a big campaign contributor, "I see nothing improper, possibly vigorous, but not improper." Senator Inouye is a fine man in many respects, but when it comes to ethical judgment of his colleagues, well. . .

The last time he was involved in one of these controversies it was as chief defense counsel for Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey, who resigned in 1982 hours before he was to be expelled for criminal financial acts. Earlier, he was one of only 15 senators to vote against a formal denunciation of Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia in 1979 for his financial misdeeds.

In the Williams case, Senator Inouye's co-counsel was Sen. Alan Cranston of the Keating Five. Maybe that's coincidence, maybe not. Maybe there just are senators who honestly believe nothing is wrong with doing a big contributor's bidding as long as it's legal. Former Sen. William Proxmire once said there were many senators like that. He also said they were wrong.

It is not necessarily improper for a senator to intervene in behalf of a campaign contributor. But it is not necessarily proper, either, as Senator Inouye and the five senators on trial would have you believe. Sens. Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, Donald Riegle, John McCain and John Glenn are being investigated to see if they broke Senate rules when they intervened vigorously with regulators to help Charles Keating after he had given them a total of $1.3 million in campaign aid. The Ethics Committee's counsel believes the money was given to these senators to "procure [their] services."

Some of the Keating Five argue that "everybody does it" and they should not be singled out for punishment. That's absurd. The Ethics Committee's special counsel doesn't even think every member of the Keating Five did it. He thinks only three of the senators are guilty of improper behavior. He would drop the investigation of Senators Glenn and McCain.

The special counsel has made a strong case so far against Senators Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle. But he is a prosecutor in this case, and the verdict on impropriety is not his to make. The committee senators have that responsibility. But if they buy the "everybody does it" argument, then they have a far more difficult task -- going after everybody else in the Senate, too.

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