Drives to unseat Packwood gain support from women

WASHINGTON VIEW

January 02, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- While the politicians in the U.S. Senate wring their hands over what to do about the complaints of sexual misconduct against Sen. Bob Packwood, lawyers here and in Oregon are laboring nights and weekends on an increasingly complex array of legal woes surrounding him.

Even if the just-reelected Oregon Republican is given his Senate seat Tuesday, over protests of many homestate voters and women's activists, and even if the Senate is unable or unwilling to discipline him severely, Mr. Packwood seems likely to remain in deep trouble.

The senator, who has insisted he will not resign, appears to have a very tenuous hold on the six-year term for which Oregonians chose him before the public knew about his unwanted sexual advances toward 15 women.

Women's rights groups, whose causes Mr. Packwood championed and effectively advanced for years, have almost completely abandoned him emotionally if not operationally.

Along with their public expressions of sadness over what has befallen him, those groups' leaders are saying privately that he could never again be their floor leader or committee captain on any issue of concern to women.

On Monday, that sentiment will come brusquely into the open when the National Organization for Women leads protest demonstrations here and in Portland on the theme "Let's Get Packwood Packing!"

In one of the supreme ironies of the political year, the election duel between Mr. Packwood and Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin was between candidates with almost equal public credentials as a supporter of women's rights. For example, each had stuck his own political neck out, repeatedly, to protect abortion rights. Some women's groups were torn over which of them to support.

Mr. Packwood prevailed, only to have it disclosed after the balloting that he had been accused of making unwanted sexual advances over several years, that he had denied that to reporters while the campaign was still on, and that he had tried to discredit his accusers, allegedly to silence them.

Whatever his effectiveness from here on as a senator, the Oregon lawmaker and his lawyer will be putting a good deal of energy into trying to fend off -- for months, and possibly much longer -- the legal troubles still multiplying.

Oregon voters' petitions asking the Senate not to let him take his oath are his first legal hurdle. The claim is that Mr. Packwood won his seat by fraudulently concealing from Oregon voters his past misbehavior -- something that, if revealed, doubtless would have led to his defeat.

There is precedent for asking a new member of Congress to stand aside pending the outcome of questions about an election campaign, and it seems clear that the Senate could, if it wished, give him only a conditional oath pending the review of the complaints.

Mr. Packwood, however, may get over the initial obstacle of taking the oath on Tuesday, when newly elected senators are slated to be sworn in, perhaps only because the Senate is not yet ready to make up its mind.

Taking the oath, however, is no guarantee that he will be insulated him from legal threats.

Senate committees will find three and possibly four formal complaints from Oregonians about Mr. Packwood, seeking his ouster if he is accepted for a new term. Those, too, allege a fraud upon the voters.

But whatever the Senate does, Mr. Packwood will continue to face a formal civil and criminal investigation back home of a voters' complaint that he violated a 1971 Oregon law making it illegal for a political candidate to use "undue influence" to affect the voters' choice.

The theory of those seeking to prove that Mr. Packwood broke that law is that he induced the biggest newspaper in the state, the Portland Oregonian, to maintain its endorsement of his candidacy during the campaign by deceiving it about the allegations of sexual misconduct, and he got the Washington Post -- through the same deception -- to hold off until after election day a story about the sexual harassment.

Mr. Packwood's legal travails thus seem only to be beginning.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover are on vacation. Their column will resume when they return.

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