House members look for place to deposit the blame Sergeant-at-arms faulted for allowing bank scandal

March 14, 1992|By David Hess | David Hess,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- House members struggling to shift the blame for the check-bouncing scandal that threatens to bring some of them down did what comes naturally to politicians under fire: They looked for a scapegoat.

As they voted unanimously early yesterday to divulge the names of all the check bouncers, members focused blame on the man who ran the bank, Sergeant-at-Arms Jack Russ.

Under extreme pressure, Mr. Russ resigned after a sharp rebuke by the House ethics committee.

The panel charged, in a report on the check-bouncing scandal, that Mr. Russ failed in his duties by running a slipshod shop where scores of members were chronically overdrawn, without penalty, in their checking accounts. Mr. Russ' resignation spared him the deeper humiliation of being fired.

But some members and congressional staffers say that Mr. Russ was a minor figure. The real culprit, they maintain, was Congress itself, with Mr. Russ simply an instrument of the members' proclivity for showering special privileges on themselves.

"The [staff] people who were heading this 'bank' tried to do what they thought was best, and their whole intent was this -- take care of the member, don't upset the member, cater to the member, kowtow to the member," said Rep. James V. Hansen of Utah, the ethics committee's ranking Republican.

A long-time Russ acquaintance and former Democratic congressional staffer agreed: "To a great extent, Jack did exactly what the members wanted -- no more, no less."

This former staffer, who asked not to be identified, recalled that on many occasions Mr. Russ would confront check bouncers and urge them to make up large shortages in their accounts. But, given the master-servant attitude that marks relations between members and staff, Mr. Russ could push only so hard.

Rep. Fred Grandy, a Republican of Iowa and a junior committee member, spread blame widely, arguing that overdrafts, rooted in the self-indulgence that permeates Congress, were a fiasco waiting to happen.

"Every witness from the sergeant-at-arms to the lowest bank teller testified [before the ethics committee] that the guiding principle of the bank was service," Mr. Grandy said.

"And this meant, for example, that any member of Congress could go to the bank on a Friday with a check to deposit for $50, a check to cash for $1,000, have only 20 bucks in his account, and all business would be transacted courteously and quickly -- no questions asked."

In a strange twist to the whole affair, Mr. Russ reported being wounded in the face by a gun-toting holdup man several days before the ethics committee was scheduled to issue its report.

Local newspapers and network television organizations have quoted anonymous District of Columbia police investigators as questioning Mr. Russ' account of the shooting. The implication was that he wounded himself to gain sympathy or in an abortive suicide attempt.

Mr. Russ, who wrote 19 bad checks, denied that in an interview with Cable News Network.

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