The school for scandal

June 07, 1994|By William Safire

INVIDIOUS" was the deliciously defamatory word chosen by Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel, to denounce my use of "bribery" to characterize the undeclared gift of $100,000 in so-called profit to the Clintons.

I'm used to that. Here are three recent examples of investigations stemming from enlightened invidiousness, in this space and elsewhere, and where they went. Three years ago, a cloud no bigger than a man's hand appeared on the political horizon: The bank operated by the House of Representatives was exposed as a check-kiting center, providing interest-free loans to perkomaniacal members.

Though high-class media downplayed the story because no public funds were involved, late-night talk-show hosts sensed a rip-off that would resonate with real people. The voter fury they fanned forced the previously complacent speaker to close down the corrupted facility.

But the little cloud was seeded with suspicion. A source told me that the House sergeant-at-arms, a casher of mysterious checks, was the protege of a powerful committee chairman.

Absent hard evidence, unable to force suspects to talk, what's a poor muckraker to do? I trusted my source and my sniffer enough to speculate in print: "Why hasn't the sergeant-at-arms been fired? . . . Because he is under the protection of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois . . ."

I like to think that this and a subsequent jab at "Rosty's protege" helped awaken official investigators. Last October, Jack Russ, whose mentor could no longer protect him, pleaded guilty to embezzling $75,000 and concealing from Congress $221,000 in check-cashing chicanery. He's now in jail. Did he implicate his patron in copping a plea, or did he take the rap? We'll find out at Rosty's trial.

The point is that muckraking -- which ranges from speculative suspicion about public figures to detailed exposes by teams of investigative reporters -- often contributes to the continuous cleansing of Augean stables.

It is usually denounced as invidious ("detrimental to reputation") by both the fair-minded and the culpable. Bert Lance used to say, "There's more muck-rakers around these days than muck-makers." And many times, investigations stimulated by muckrakers fail to reach the level of prosecution.

But even those can serve a purpose. Another example: When press reports appeared in the 1992 campaign that the passport files of Bill Clinton and his mother were searched by State Department political appointees looking for dirt, the furor caused the appointment of independent counsel.

In a couple of months, Joseph diGenova's grand jury is likely to conclude that the search of the files was not unlawful, but the perpetrator of the crime of disclosing their contents could not be found. No indictments will be handed up, but a public report will be issued about this abuse of power sure to taint the record of former Secretary of State James Baker and his closest aides. As a result, no future secretary is likely to run the risk of letting henchwomen do political dirty work soon again; the cost of the investigation was public money well spent.

Curiously, raking this Passport Office muck turned up yet another invasion of privacy: It became known that evidence was tainted by the illicit eavesdropping on calls made through the State Department's communications center. In this space and elsewhere, demands were promptly made to find and punish the snoops who -- with no warrant -- secretly listened in on calls made by private citizens.

The Justice Department has quietly closed that investigation into these "overhears" on the dubious grounds that the wrongdoing had become so routine for so long that it amounted to a government policy.

However, even this Reno nonfeasance could have its positive effect: Individuals eavesdropped upon in the past who file civil suits may be able to force Justice to disgorge evidence about the invasion of their privacy.

And today, officials at State's Comm Center politely ask callers beforehand if they want the call "monitored." We invidiots mark success in scandal-mongering not merely in convictions obtained but in wrongdoing made costly and future predations averted.

Bunyan's "man with the muckrake," gaze fixed downward, missed seeing the celestial crown in the sky. Such is the chance progressive pilgrims take in airing suspicions and probing probers to probe, but sometimes there's gold in that thar muck.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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