Mikulski describes fall of Packwood

September 10, 1995|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The forced resignation of Bob Packwood represents a rupture in the ranks of the nation's most prominent Old Boys Club, but Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski says it has little to do with changing sexual mores.

By recommending expulsion of a senator who was accused not only of 18 instances of sexual misconduct, but also of tampering with evidence and abusing his office for personal gain, the Senate Ethics Committee was simply following standards that would be used in any other workplace, Senator Mikulski said in an interview last week.

"We have clearly demonstrated that the Senate can police its own," said the Maryland Democrat, one of six members of the bipartisan Ethics Committee.

Historically, the severe penalty of expulsion has been reserved for senators convicted of felonies or treason.

But the cumulative effect of Mr. Packwood's actions was deemed so egregious by his colleagues that the Oregon Republican resigned Thursday rather than face a vote in the Senate on whether to expel him.

"This case makes history," said Ms. Mikulski, who spent nearly three years poring over evidence in the case.

"This was a systematic abuse of women, power and this `D institution. We established the precedent."

It was in late June, Ms. Mikulski said, when Mr. Packwood appeared before the Ethics Committee for three days and failed to offer a persuasive case against the charges, that she made up her mind that he deserved to be expelled.

"He could not clearly articulate a defense," she said. "Cumulatively, there was a line here that was so transgressed, it warranted expulsion."

Although the Packwood case represents the first time that senators have taken on the delicate and painful task of examining a colleague's sexual behavior, Ms. Mikulski disputed assertions that Mr. Packwood was a victim of changing standards of propriety or of a heightened consciousness of sexual harassment.

"This is not a new definition; this is not about a misunderstanding," she said.

"This is not like Senator Packwood was in a singles bar, and somebody misunderstood when he offered to buy them a drink. Some of these cases were violent."

In most of the incidents, Mr. Packwood would grope, fondle and forcibly kiss the female aides and Senate employees.

Many of the women were vulnerable because they needed his goodwill.

"I don't know of any time in history when the abuse of women was considered OK," Ms. Mikulski said.

Memories of Anita Hill

The Senate's handling of the Packwood matter and its eventual outcome were much affected by the public relations debacle the senators suffered in 1991, when Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas appeared to some to be treated lightly.

One direct result was Ms. Mikulski's assignment to the Ethics Committee when the Packwood scandal broke in 1992.

The Senate majority leader, George J. Mitchell, recalling the spectacle of an all-male Judiciary Committee sitting in judgment of Ms. Hill, was determined to have at least one woman on the Ethics Committee.

"In the past, when there has been violence against women, their voices were often minimized or trivialized, and they are made to be the problem, rather than [the violence] being the problem," Ms. Mikulski said.

"I was always clear there would be no whitewash, but no witch hunt."

But Ms. Mikulski said she was "pleasantly surprised" to discover that her male colleagues on the Ethics Committee did not need her prodding to take seriously the complaints against Mr. Packwood.

They quickly agreed to extend to the victims the rape shield protections used in federal courts to prevent Mr. Packwood from making an issue of the victims' unrelated sexual history.

"I believe the Anita Hill matter had such a searing impact on this institution that any issues related to sexual misconduct would be taken seriously," she said.

Pattern of abuse

Even so, the Packwood matter developed into something beyond the crude, suggestive language and workplace hostility of which Ms. Hill accused Justice Thomas.

Rather than charging Mr. Packwood with sexual harassment -- a legal term that has time limits -- the committee reached more than two decades into his past to explore a pattern of abusive behavior.

As the picture has emerged, Mr. Packwood, a five-term veteran who is considered one of the Senate's most able members, seems to have targeted numerous women as sexual objects.

In his diary, he boasts of making love to 22 staff members and of conducting "passionate relationships" with 75 others.

"There was a lot more stuff we could have dealt with," Ms. Mikulski said.

"The committee did not deal at all with the consensual relationships. It did not deal with the cases where the woman would not give her name, would not be deposed, was not willing to appear, if necessary, at a public hearing.

Element of trust

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