San Francisco — Disbelief is the reaction among Oregonians to allegations of influence peddling leveled at United States Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R). The senator is so trusted in Oregon that even campaign officials with his Democratic opponent in the November election said they didn't believe the news when it appeared on the front pages of the Oregonian in Portland last week.
The story, reprinted from the New York Times, said the US Justice Department will investigate whether a $40,000 payment to the senator's wife by a Greek businessman was intended to secure Hatfield's help in promoting a trans-African oil pipeline. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will conduct the probe.
Hatfield has said that his wife, Antoinette, received $40,000 as a real estate fee for helping the businessman, Basil Tsakos, find an apartment in the expensive Watergate complex.
[In Washington, Hatfield issued a statement last week denying ''any connection between her real estate dealings and my senatorial responsibility.''
[The Senate ethics committee also announced it has ''begun reviewing information'' provided by ''press accounts, interviews, and other documents volunteered to the committee from the files of Senator Hatfield.'']
Federal law prohibits public officials from accepting benefits in return for using their official influence.
Senator Hatfield, who arrived in Oregon Friday night, has a spotless 36-year political reputation among his constituency of ranchers, loggers, and young professionals. The senator, who has served as governor, secretary of state, state representative, and state senator, commands so much support in Oregon that he has won three Senate terms without ever polling his constituents or running media ads.
Oregonians will be looking to see if Hatfield's campaign style will change as a result of the FBI and Senate investigations. His reelection committee says the senator will hold a news conference today in Portland to discuss the investigations.
Political talk outside the state focuses on whether he could lose his Senate seat becuase of the allegations and, specifically, if the situation could become a windfall for Democrats looking to gain control of the Senate.
From YMCA locker rooms to breakfast tables at the State Capitol in Salem, Oregonians of all political persuasions reported disbelief over the allegations. And none of 10 Oregon party officials, pollsters, and campaign officials interviewed by telephone said they believe the situation - as it stands - is enough to shake Hatfield's hold on his seat.
''The maverick nature of politics in Oregon makes it difficult to classify as either Democrat or Republican,'' says Edwin Bingham, professor of history at the University of Oregon. Registered Democrats are the majority on voter rolls, but Republicans are the majority of elected officials.
Oregon Democrats are not eager to exploit the situation - if not out of sheer respect for the senior senator, then out of fear it would backfire, says Jerry Medler, associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon. ''There is a provincialism that makes [the state] suspicious of big money ... special interests ... unions ... outside groups. In a sense, Hatfield could be portrayed as a victim. They [Oregonians] might say 'those city slickers got our boy,' '' says Dr. Medler, who has been a campaign consultant to Margie Hendriksen, the Democratic state senator opposing Hatfield in November.
A number of those interviewed by phone noted that the Hatfield reports, spread across the front pages of the Oregonian last week, were reprints of New York Times stories. And their disbelief was further fueled, they said, by the ''frequent use of anonymous sources.''
Doubt was also fueled by published reports that Mr. Tsakos - whose efforts to build a trans-African oil pipeline Hatfield said he still supports - has been involved in arms deals with Arab countries and has discussed selling 25 Cobra attack helicopters to Iran. ''That's really out of character (for Hatfield),'' Medler says, adding that the senator is seen as a ''Christian gentleman,'' ''an aloof statesman concerned with peace.'' He has had a record of voting against the arms buildup.
Dick Celsi, state Democratic Party chairman, says there is no indication the Democratic National Committee will target the seat with increased campaign funds for the election. Ms. Hendriksen, while continuing to focus largely on Hatfield's fiscal conservatism, told a New York Times reporter last week that the senator's support of the pipeline ''raises questions about the kind of representation Oregon has been receiving'' in Congress.
Says Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus: ''Mr. Hatfield has been an elected official every day of his life since he was a young, single man. Every aspect of his life has been closely scrutinized by the people of this state.''