An honor for Mfume turns into an embarrassment


March 27, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Kweisi Mfume was quite honored when he was asked to fill a seat on the House ethics committee last October, even though the reason for the opening was embarrassing.

Louis Stokes, Democrat from Ohio and chairman of the committee, had to step down when it was discovered that he had written rubber checks at the House bank.

But Mfume was considered a good choice for a committee slot. He had a reputation for being serious, sober and solid.

And so House Speaker Tom Foley wanted to know just one thing before Mfume was appointed: Had Mfume written any bad checks himself?

"No," Mfume replied.

So you can imagine Mfume's embarrassment last week when it was discovered that he had, in fact, written a dozen bad checks totaling more than $2,500 from July 1988 to October 1991.

Mfume said he had not knowingly lied about the bad checks. He said the House bank never told him when he was overdrawn. It had just covered his checks and charged him no fees, penalties or interest.

And this was the excuse used by many of the check bouncers. Though some Americans wondered how people who tell us they are responsible enough to make laws for the nation could not be responsible enough to balance their checkbooks.

So I called Mfume and asked him.

"I accept full and total responsibility for clerical errors on my part," he said. "I keep my own checkbook. And I have no excuse."

And how has the public reacted?

"The public reaction has been one of disdain and disgust," Mfume said. "The public sees this as some sort of privilege they don't have. And they are rightfully outraged."

In a press release, Mfume listed his dozen bad checks, which ranged from a $600 check to pay a credit card bill to a $22.30 check to pay his water bill.

But one check, for $200, is missing, and Mfume says he does not know to whom it was made out.

What did you write down in your check register when you wrote out that check? I asked him.

"I throw out my check registers," he said.

You what?

"I use desk models, which are bulky, and I use two or three a year and so I throw them out," he said. "I don't need them because I keep the canceled checks."

So where's the canceled check?

"I don't know," he said.

Did you know the House bank was covering your overdraft checks?

"No," he said.

Did you know, for instance, that you were not getting any interest on your money at the House bank?

"No," he said.

Did you realize that the House bank was providing you with any perks (i.e. special benefits) at all?

"No," he said. "Clearly some members were aware and clearly took advantage. I can't understand how anyone could write 700 or 800 bad checks and not know."

If a House member wrote a bad check, usually the only notification he got was a little red dot stamped on the canceled check.

But many House check bouncers now say they had no idea what that little red dot meant.

"I am angry that I was never notified," Mfume said. "I don't need this kind of embarrassment. I never believed I was ever overdrawn."

Mfume, a 7th District Democrat, is in no great danger of losing his seat in November. Twelve checks does not a serious abuser make.

But will he continue to serve on the ethics committee, investigating the other check bouncers?

"I don't know," he said. "It is not the most pleasant committee to serve on."

There is nothing unbelievable about Mfume's story. He didn't know how the House bank was run. He didn't know the benefits he got. He didn't know what the red dots meant.

And he never asked.

I can believe that. Though in reviewing his committee appointments one does stand out.

It is a committee that has nothing to do with the current scandal, but you'd think its members would have a certain degree of financial knowledge.

Because since 1987 Kweisi Mfume has been a member of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee. And a member of its Financial Institutions Supervision, Regulation and Insurance Subcommittee.

He has to know, therefore, a lot about how our money is handled.

So how come he never checked up on his own?


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