Change the rotten system

Paul Greenberg

December 13, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

WHAT IS this strange sensation -- this new feeling about the Keating Five? Why, no, it can't be, but yet it is: human sympathy. What, sympathy for United States senators who buddied up to Charles Keating, big investor in savings-and-loans and political influence?

Yep. Not because of the unconvincing, self-righteous, posturing rhetoric from some of the accused -- or their attempt to browbeat the committee's hard-digging counsel, Robert Bennett. But because they have been singled out for doing essentially what their colleagues do -- collecting campaign contributions and then helping the contributors. They may have done it in more brazen )) fashion, but is that a difference in kind or in degree?

The whole atmosphere surrounding this ethics investigation/trial smacks of, well, the unethical. Note the way in which all five have been lumped together in these proceedings whatever their degree of involvement with Charlie Keating, who has gone from Big Daddy to pariah in record time. Mass trials are always suspect; they look too much like a party purge.

Then there is the national mood of anger and disgust with the savings-and-loan fiasco; a few prominent scapegoats are wanted. And what of the ex-post-facto atmosphere of these proceedings? Senators are accused of violating rules that have never been written down, lest that make the whole shoddy enterprise of raising campaign funds all too clear.

How, after all, would you codify such rules? 1) Take, but not too much. 2) Help your friends, but not any who may get in trouble. 3) Get what you can, but put a decent interval between gift and reciprocation. 4) Appoint somebody -- an official, legal bagman to accept contributions -- and don't put anything in writing. Just to describe the United States Senate's idea of "ethical" fund-raising in such terms would be embarrassingly accurate.

Please note Special Counsel Exhibit 154 dated Jan. 2, 1987. It's a memo from an aide to Sen. Alan Cranston of California, one of the great beneficiaries of Charlie Keating's largess -- "Cases/legislation: Now that we are back in the majority, there are a number of individuals who have been very helpful to you who have cases or legislative matters pending within our office who will rightfully expect some kind of resolution. Following is a short list of ones you should be aware of." Key phrases: very helpful to you ... rightfully expect. Gift and reciprocation.

Not surprisingly, the name of Charles Keating is on the list. No one seems to object to the others listed, who go discreetly unmentioned. No details are offered about how or if Cranston helped them; maybe they weren't in the savings-and-loan business.

Has no other senator ever written or received such a memo? Or do other senators make it a practice to snub their campaign contributors? Isn't there a phrase for this kind of favor, namely, "constituent service"? Does anyone pretend that constituents who give big money to politicians don't get access to them?

Take the case of another senator: He ranked 33rd among his colleagues in taking money from the savings-and-loan industry during the past decade, having accepted $29,950. This senator not only intervened on behalf of his state's savings-and-loans but threatened to hold up an appropriation for the federal regulatory agency that supervises them -- and he may even have done so for a day. But he is not one of the senators appearing before the ethics committee. No, they are appearing before him. He's David Pryor of Arkansas and he's on the committee. At least he has the grace to look ill at ease during these proceedings. He should be.

It is not individual senators who should be on the spot but the whole, rotten system of campaign fund-raising that has produced this spectacle. Here we have the honorables on a Senate committee solemnly probing and debating the actions of five others who acted in the ethical vacuum that characterizes the whole place. And the vacuum itself may be left untouched, maybe even unnoticed.

Unless this committee faces up to the systemic problem with ethics in the United States Senate, namely the shortage of same, this hearing will only add hypocrisy to the greed already unveiled. The committee needs to examine the roots of this affair. Those roots lie in the private financing of public campaigns.

Until public financing is introduced, and no senator is allowed to accept tips to insure prompt service, the ethical vacuum will remain and more scandals will sprout. The other than honorable "honorariums" that members of Congress gladly accept from various interests, the extravagant campaign funds for even unopposed candidates, the various other ways private citizens may buy access to public officials -- that is the scandal.

In the last century, it took the assassination of a president to finally bring civil service reform to this country. The Keating Five may yet do the Republic a service if their embarrassment leads to campaign reform.

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