WASHINGTON -- The Senate Ethics Committee closed a chapter on one of Congress' longest-running scandals yesterday when it announced it had found "substantial credible evidence" that Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., acted improperly in his relationship with former S&L kingpin Charles H. Keating Jr.
Mr. Cranston faces the prospect of formal censure on the Senate floor, if the committee recommends such action after it has given him a chance to respond to its charges.
At the same time, the panel decided yesterday that no further action was warranted against the other four members of the so-called Keating Five -- senators accused of intervening with banking regulators during Mr. Keating's protracted struggle to win favorable federal treatment for his failing thrift.
"It's clear that I have been singled out despite the evidence in all five cases," Mr. Cranston complained in a statement.
The committee did, however, contend that the conduct of two others -- Democratic Sens. Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona -- "gave the appearance of being improper," and that Sens. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and John McCain, R-Ariz., "exercised poor judgment" in their actions.
"The words speak for themselves," said Sen. Warren B. Rudman, R-N.H., panel vice chairman.
The panel's conclusions provoked immediate protests from critics, who characterized the findings as a whitewash protecting the accused senators from punishment for tactics such observers say are commonly, if not universally, practiced by the senators' colleagues.
"Today's action by the Senate Ethics Committee is a cop-out and a damning indictment of the committee," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the self-styled citizens' lobby Common Cause. "It represents a triumph for the club at the expense of the Senate and its integrity."
The unanimous decision by the six-member committee virtually cleared the way for full Senate consideration of some kind of formal penalty against Mr. Cranston. It also lifted much of the stigma that has hovered over the other four members of the group since the committee formally launched its investigation in December 1989.
"I am of course relieved that I have been exonerated," Mr. McCain said. "The damage has been almost all repaired."
All five senators had denied any wrongdoing in their association with Mr. Keating, who sought their intervention on behalf of his faltering Lincoln Savings and Loan at a time when federal regulators were investigating the institution.
Mr. Keating and associates donated $1.3 million to the campaigns and political causes of the five lawmakers. The thrift was seized by regulators in April 1989 at a potential cost to taxpayers in excess of $2 billion.
Ironically, the case may have a greater impact on congressional fund-raising procedures than it will on the reputations and careers of the five senators.
Mr. Cranston, who has received treatment for prostate cancer, has already said that he will not seek re-election in 1992. Most observers expect the other four to overcome any political fallout accruing from, as one disgruntled senator put it, "a tap on the pinky."
In its six-page summary report, the panel called for establishment of a "bipartisan task force on constituent service" charged with crafting written standards for senators.
In its summary report, the committee found:
* "That Senator Cranston engaged in an impermissible pattern of conduct in which fund-raising and official activities were substantially linked."
* That Senator Riegle "took steps to assist Lincoln Savings and Loan Association with its regulatory problems at a time that Charles Keating was raising substantial campaign funds" and "gave the appearance of being improper and was certainly attended with insensitivity and poor judgment."
* That Senator DeConcini's "aggressive conduct" with thrift regulators on Mr. Keating's behalf "was inappropriate."
* That Senator Glenn similarly exercised poor judgment when he arranged a luncheon meeting between Mr. Keating and former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, in January 1988.
* That Senator McCain exercised poor judgment "in intervening with the regulators" but that his actions "were not improper nor attended with gross negligence."