In our system, some are, indeed, above the law

January 20, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Carole Ramierez pushed her way through the bitter cold to a laundromat on Fleet Street, dragging a cart full of dirty clothes behind her. She wore a heavy coat and a wool knit cap, pulled low over her ears. Once inside, she began stuffing laundry into the big machines, not bothering to unbutton her coat or remove her hat.

So I waited. Mrs. Ramierez, 33, loaded the machines, heaved a big sigh and sat down to read People magazine. That's when I asked her for her reaction to the special prosecutor's final report on the Iran-contra scandal.

She gave me an expressionless stare.

"Nothing," she said, "I don't care about that one way or the other."

"But, do you think justice was done," I persisted. "Do you think we finally have learned the truth?"

Mrs. Ramierez shrugged. "It's all a big cover-up. Nobody ever tells you the truth, anyway. I stopped paying attention to all that a long time ago. I have my own problems."

Outside, the wind howled. People picked their way over ice-covered sidewalks -- not a comfortable day to do the laundry. Mrs. Ramierez told me she has three children at home and her husband is disabled. She is looking for work. Her family shares an apartment near Fells Point with an unmarried sister and her four-year-old child.

"What's relevant to me right now," said Mrs. Ramierez, "is doing these clothes and walking six blocks back home in the cold.

"Those people in Washington," she continued bitterly, "they're going to do what they want to do anyway. So, why should I care?"

It is hard to argue with her. I bet a lot of people feel the same way. In fact, so do I.

On Tuesday, independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh said that top members of the Reagan administration had arranged to sell arms to Iran in exchange for U.S. hostages being held there, and then used the profits from those sales to secretly equip the contra movement in Nicaragua.

But we already knew all of that -- the basic outlines of the scandal were revealed during congressional hearings six years ago. The only real question that remained was whether the American system of justice was strong enough or bold enough to hold the high and mighty responsible.

You may remember the arrogance with which Reagan officials treated congressional efforts to hold them accountable.

"When you take the king's shilling, you do the king's bidding," said Lewis A. Tambs, former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, when asked to explain his role in the affair.

"I was trying to use some tortured language -- inappropriately, perhaps," said Robert C. McFarlane, President Reagan's national security adviser, as he shrugged off an apparent pattern of misstatements to Congress about what had happened.

And when Fawn Hall, former secretary to Lt. Col. Oliver North, testified that she had destroyed evidence to protect her boss, she justified her actions this way: "Sometimes, you have to go above the written law, I believe."

Tuesday, the special prosecutor reported that Ms. Hall's view permeated the Reagan and Bush administrations. But it took Judge Walsh seven years to reach this conclusion and it reportedly cost the American public about $40 million. Fourteen officials were indicted by the special prosecutor and 11 were convicted or pleaded guilty. But only one official went to prison for his involvement in the affair and many of the convictions were overturned on appeal. And although Presidents Reagan and Bush received harsh criticism in Judge Walsh's report, the special prosecutor did not tie either man to any specific criminal acts. (Many of those named in the report angrily deny the allegations.)

We may be witnessing the death of a democratic ideal: that no one is above the law.

The highest in the land expected to beat the rap and they did. They marched before Congress, boasted of their actions, and dared the system to hold them accountable.

Mrs. Ramierez is right: It is too cold to get worked up over things we cannot control.

But we shrug today, not because we do not care but because the American system of justice lived down to our expectations.

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