McCain's Attitude Problem

January 05, 1991

The first of "the Keating Five" senators, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went before the Senate Ethics Committee yesterday to be cross-examined by committee members and counsel. It was not a pretty spectacle, and it suggests much uglier business next week.

Senator McCain and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, who also testified yesterday, appear to be the least culpable of the five senators accused of improperly influencing government regulators on behalf of financier Charles Keating. Robert S. Bennett, the Ethics Committee counsel, has recommended that the committee drop charges against the two.

Yet consider one exchange yesterday between Senator McCain and Ethics Committee Chairman Howell Heflin, D-Ala. Yes, Senator McCain admitted, he and his family and a baby-sitter took numerous costly vacations to the Bahamas and elsewhere at Mr. Keating's expense. No, he didn't reimburse Mr. Keating until later, when the Keating affair became a public scandal. Yes, he only paid $550 reimbursement for one trip that actually cost $3,512.

Senator McCain excused himself by saying, "Obviously I did not have a proper procedure."

Here was a U.S. senator accepting out-of-the-ordinary favors from a private citizen with an enormous stake in laws and regulations that the senator could influence. Yet he had no "proper procedure" to make sure he didn't violate Senate rules. But the Code of Ethics for Government Service forbids accepting "favors and benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of government duties." That's pretty clear. No wonder Senator McCain's decision to accept Charles Keating's largess and then pressure regulators to change rules at his behest is construed by many reasonable persons as a quid pro quo.

Senator McCain doesn't have a procedure problem. He has an attitude problem. He doesn't see the importance of being above suspicion. Or doesn't care about it. Or didn't until he got caught.

Some senators insist this is the standard senatorial attitude toward special interests. If so, the Ethics Committee and the full Senate have two problems. First, what to do about the flagrant abuse of power in return for large campaign contributions. (Mr. Keating gave $1.3 million to the Keating Five, three of whom went to extraordinary lengths to keep government regulators from enforcing the law.) Second, what to do about the cozy arrangements that create the appearance, if not the actuality, of special-interest money buying special influence. The more we learn from these hearings, the more certain we are that the Senate has to take strong action if it wants to ensure the public of its integrity.

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