Mfume joins a growing chorus Democrat confesses to 12 bad checks

March 21, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Kweisi Mfume disclosed yesterday he wrote 12 bad checks at the now-closed House bank, becoming the third member of the Maryland congressional delegation among the 355 current and former lawmakers who had overdrafts.

The three-term Baltimore Democrat had said he did not believe he had any overdrafts. But late Thursday night the House ethics committee told him he had a dozen overdrafts with a face value of just over $2,500.

Half the checks were for amounts under $100, and all of them were covered within an average of seven days.

"If they were clerical errors on my part I accept the responsibility," Mr. Mfume said. "I'm really angry that every day more people are finding out just how haphazard . . . that bank was."

In related developments yesterday, Attorney General William P. Barr named Malcolm R. Wilkey, a retired federal judge, as special counsel to investigate whether any laws were broken at the bank.

Mr. Wilkey, who served 15 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, will take responsibility for a probe of the bank being mounted by the U.S. attorney's office. The review is to determine whether banking, disclosure or campaign finance laws were broken.

Also yesterday, in an effort to quell the growing public anger at Congress, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley moved to eliminate some of the perks lawmakers enjoy. He said he would end the practice of free medical prescriptions for House members and ask the House gym committee to increase the $100 yearly fee members pay to use the House gym.

Mr. Foley, a Washington Democrat, said other perks also would be reviewed. One source said the House stationery store, where members can purchase cut-rate goods, would eliminate merchandise not essential for congressional offices, such as ashtrays and other gift items.

In disclosing his overdrafts, Mr. Mfume said the checks were written for monthly bills and other expenses and charitable contributions. He said he was unable to locate one of the checks, written out for $200.

Ironically, Mr. Mfume was temporarily appointed to the ethics committee last October to replace Democrat Louis Stokes of Ohio, who realized he had written bad checks and recused himself from the investigation into the House bank.

Mr. Mfume said last fall he received a letter from the House sergeant-at-arms saying he had no overdrafts from July 1, 1980, to June 30, 1990. While that turned out to be correct, Mr. Mfume said, the ethics committee investigation encompassed a different time period: July 1, 1988, through Oct. 3, 1991.

"The speaker believed I had no overdrafts, and I believed I had no overdrafts," said the congressman. He said he decided to ask for a more thorough review of his records after Defense Secretary Dick Cheney learned this week he had overdrafts as a House member.

Mr. Mfume said he was uncertain if the overdrafts were the result of his own miscalculations or mistakes by the bank, whose operation was termed lax and haphazard by the committee. He said he was never contacted by the bank about the bad checks and was unaware that members could write overdrafts on their next month's pay.

Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Beverly B. Byron, both Democrats, have said they too wrote overdrafts at the bank but were never informed by bank officials. Mr. Hoyer wrote four overdrafts; Mrs. Byron wrote six. The remaining five members of the House delegation have said they do not believe they wrote any overdrafts.

The full ethics committee found that 19 current and 5 former lawmakers "abused" the system by writing hundreds of bounced checks. The bank closed last December.

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