Senators on Thin Ice

January 23, 1991

Senate Ethics Committee hearings on the Keating Five ended on a sad note.

The attorney for one of the senators on trial said, "What amazes me is that after one of the finest careers in public service of any man or woman in this country, after standing up for peace and justice for the ordinary people for [over 50 years], now, in the twilight of his career, Alan Cranston must face the accusation either expressed or implied that he became Charles Keating's marionette and single-handedly changed the course of decisions at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board."

Senator Cranston has had such a career. That and the fact that he at present is suffering from cancer make the moment even more poignant. But he's not accused of what his lawyer says. He and the other senators were accused of violating the Code of Ethics for Government Service and other Senate rules and regulations that forbid members from accepting money from individuals then performing a service for them in a transaction that is related. In Senator Cranston's case, there is pretty good evidence that he was not even the passive partner in such a relationship with Mr. Keating.

Senators say their responsibility to help constituents applies to those who make campaign contributions as well as to those who do not and that there is no clear dividing line between ethical and unethical assistance to a contributor. They are right that the line is not perfectly clear. But there is a line and men and women smart enough to get elected to the U.S. Senate can distinguish. As Sen. Nancy Kassebaum said, contemplating the Keating Five, "There's a line. It's sometimes a fine line. But I really do think we know not to cross it."

"Senator Glenn does not want to skate by here," said Sen. John Glenn's lawyer in the final session of the Ethics Committee. "He wants you to test him by the toughest ethical standard you can devise." Certainly compared to others of the Keating Five, Senator Glenn looks good. But if the test were "the toughest ethical standard," even he should be rebuked, we believe. He came close enough to the line to create the appearance of impropriety, which in an ideal Senate would not be allowed. For awhile at least, he was skating on thin ice.

Many senators skate on thin ice right up to the danger line or beyond when it comes to campaign contributors. For those who do, there are degrees of impropriety. The Ethics Committee seems to be leaning in the direction of putting Senator Cranston and Sen. Dennis DeConcini over the line. Perhaps Sen. Donald Riegle Jr., too. But not Senator Glenn and Sen. John McCain.

However the committee decides to deal with the five men, it should make as clear as it can the distinctions in their behavior that brings about distinctions in recommended punishments. We thought all senators knew right from wrong, but this case suggests maybe that is not so.

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