On the Hill, fears of sex in glass houses Starr's report to focus unwanted spotlight on lawmaker misconduct

September 03, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In this era of nonconfessions and quasi-apologies, Rep. Dan Burton's recent mea culpa may rank just below President Clinton's in its inscrutability.

But when Burton hinted that he would soon have to disclose how he caused his three marital separations and a near-divorce, his message on Capitol Hill was clear: Sexual misconduct in Congress will become an issue as soon as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr sends his investigative report to the House, possibly this month, and members had better be ready.

After a handful of reporters began snooping into his private life, the Indiana Republican and fierce Clinton critic told supporters Monday: "Anything you read in the paper that I should be accountable for, I apologize in advance." With those remarks, Burton brought to light the nervous tremors lying just below the surface of Capitol Hill.

"Politicians should almost never attack another politician on fund raising and sex," warned Bob Mulholland, a California campaign adviser and member of the Democratic National Committee. "These people all live in glass houses."

The history of sex scandals in Congress is as long as it is titillating. In 1980, former Rep. Robert Bauman, a Maryland Republican, pleaded guilty to sexual solicitation after being charged in a men's room encounter with a teen-age boy. Three years later, Reps. Daniel B. Crane, an Illinois Republican, and Gerry E. Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat, were censured for having sexual relations with teen-age pages.

Before that, there was Rep. Wilbur D. Mills of Arkansas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who was caught cavorting with stripper Fanne Foxe, and Rep. Wayne L. Hays of Ohio, who kept his mistress Elizabeth Ray on the public payroll, though she could not type and would not answer the phones.

Congressional records

Even present-day members of Congress have sexual indiscretions to answer for, including members of the House Judiciary Committee, which would lead any presidential impeachment inquiry.

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a senior Judiciary Committee Democrat, was reprimanded in 1990 for his relationship with a male prostitute. Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican and Judiciary Committee member, was criticized for once licking whipped cream off the chests of two buxom women at a charity event.

Merely raising the issue of sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill may be an effective political tactic, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and the author of books on political scandal and the press. Members of Congress might keep a low profile on the presidential sex scandal to make sure the spotlight does not shine on them.

That scenario played out in 1991, as the Senate Judiciary Committee considered Anita Hill's accusations that Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated to become a Supreme Court justice, had sexually harassed her. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy sat in stony silence, lest his own peccadilloes come back to the limelight.

"Clearly, there are many stories to be told," Sabato said. "Hypocrisy becomes the driving motive" of the press and the president's allies, and "where hypocrisy is the greatest, the member has the most to fear."

Burton's hints

Burton hinted at the same fears when he told constituents this week: "Every one of us has got something in their past they probably wouldn't want on the front page of the paper." If the Clinton White House can intimidate its critics into silence, Burton said, "this government is in trouble."

The liberal-leaning Internet magazine Salon has accused House Speaker Newt Gingrich of adopting a low profile on the Lewinsky scandal to avoid rehashing allegations of his sexual infidelity first reported in 1995.

In a separate article, the magazine asserted that the president's allies plan to employ "scorched-earth" tactics against their Republican critics and investigate allegations of "character" misconduct by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Gingrich, Burton and Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Judiciary Committee chairman who is widely seen as beyond partisan reproach.

John F. Williams, a spokesman for Burton, complained that the White House is using Terry Lenzner and his private investigative firm to dig up dirt on congressional Republicans, an assertion that Lenzner dismissed out of hand.

"I will say categorically [that] we would never accept an assignment of that nature, whether it would be Congressman Burton or anybody else," Lenzner said yesterday.

Rahm Emanuel, a senior Clinton adviser, denied that the White House was spreading sexual rumors about Republican members Congress.

Mulholland, the California Democrat, said there would be no need to pay a private investigator to do a job that the press will gladly do for free. Last spring, he suggested that he was looking into the background of Barr, who had called for Clinton's impeachment even before Monica Lewinsky emerged on the political landscape.

Flurry of news reports

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