Who Should Judge the Keating 5?

February 26, 1991

The Senate Ethics Committee appears near a decision on what to do about the Keating Five senators. This case is still in its very early stages. The lengthy committee hearings involving the five senators, their defense lawyers and the committee's special counsel were only the "preliminary inquiry" stage of the affair.

At this point the committee chairman and vice chairman could decide on their own to drop the whole thing. If they choose not to do that, the full Ethics Committee could eventually vote to drop the matter, or to recommend a committee-determined "punishment," such as a letter to the senators saying they shouldn't have done what they did.

There have been reports from Washington that such a letter is the worst punishment being considered for the four members of the Keating Five who are planning to run for re-election -- Sens. Dennis DeConcini and John McCain of Arizona, Donald Riegle of Michigan and John Glenn of Ohio. Only Sen. Alan Cranston of California, who is retiring, would be dealt with more severely.

Our own reading of the cases against these senators is that Senator Cranston went farther in interfering with federal regulators on Charles Keating's behalf in return for large campaign contributions than any of the others. But the remaining four did, in our view, cross the line between proper and improper "constituent service." Yet some may well have done little more than what has come to be expected of elected officials. A "tsk-tsk" letter may be the proper reprimand for them.

This is not the sort of thing six senators, much less two, should decide on their own in closed-door discussions. The case of the Keating Five goes beyond a little housekeeping matter that can be settled that casually. This case goes to the core of behavior that all senators are called upon to decide every day. The full membership of the Senate owes it to their accused colleagues to decide if they misbehaved and if so to what degree.

It goes beyond collegiality. We believe the overwhelming majority of American citizens would like to hear their own senators state for the record, in the context of each case, the ethical principles upon which they operate when it comes to constituent service and the link, if any, to campaign contributions.

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