Hatfield case: ethics laws, politics, and spouse's job

Some fine-tuning of government ethics laws is in order, says Sen. Mark Hatfield, who helped forge the post-Watergate laws under which he is being scrutinized today.

Increasingly, the Oregon Republican says, this question will be asked: Where are the lines drawn between a politician's job and the spouse's business?

''Disclosure and such are good, but we are going to have to address the role of wife - my wife, my congressman's wife, my senator's wife,'' says the senator. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Senate Ethics Committee are investigating a payment made to his wife, Antoinette, a real estate agent, by a Greek businessman. The businessman, Basil Tsakos, had promoted a trans-African pipeline project to which the senator lent his support.

Senator Hatfield maintained in a Monitor interview Monday that his wife's business and his own are separate - that the $55,000 payment from Mr. Tsakos, which the Hatfields have said was a real estate fee, did not affect the senator's decision to promote the pipeline. But, the senator says, the implications of allegations against him are that ''there is a lesser right that political wives have to the pursuit of an independent life.''

''The wife is considered an extension of her husband. I think that's an implication that this is an area where a spouse doesn't have the full rights. The overall law is good, but there is an inequity with regard to the wife,'' says Hatfield, a cosponsor of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

The issue Hatfield raises is key to the question regarding vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro's financial disclosure problems. Her husband, John Zaccaro, has refused to disclose his income-tax returns. The issue is whether full disclosure includes the finances of both marriage partners. The spousal connection was also raised in the case of Rep. George Hansen (R) of Idaho, who was convicted of making false statements to the government on his financial disclosure forms. He did not list some of his wife's business dealings, which he says are separate from his under Idaho law.

''All the laws are good. Even though I'm in this distressful situation, it's not that the laws are working against me,'' Senator Hatfield concludes. But, he adds, he has no suggestion yet for how to deal with political spouses.

Law alone won't assure Americans of the trustworthiness of their politicians, he says. ''You have to earn people's trust every day,'' says the senator, whose 34-year political reputation has been so spotless here that he is called ''Senator Clean.''

Proving himself daily has been consuming all the senator's time here this week, as he explains his case in nonstop interviews with the press.

On Monday, Senator and Mrs. Hatfield detailed their involvement with Mr. Tsakos, right down to the rug samples and draperies Mrs. Hatfield says she was paid to help find for his Watergate apartment. Further, their story was revised as Mrs. Hatfield disclosed that she had earned $55,000 for the deal, rather than the $40,000 reported in the press. And for good measure, the couple handed a local children's hospital a charity check for the $55,000.

''I'm guilty of insensitivity to the appearance factor,'' Senator Hatfield admitted. Once before, in 1976, his wife's real estate dealings in the Saudi Arabian government's attempt to buy a congressionally restricted building in the District of Columbia raised the question of possible conflict of interest, because Hatfield was on the Senate committee involved in the district's zoning. He recognized the conflict of interest then, he says, and withdrew from proceedings on that case.

Asked how he could have overlooked the similar appearance of conflict of interest in the Tsakos affair, he explained, ''I saw no conflict. This time around I had no official role. Our government was not licensing, appropriating, financing, or approving the pipeline.''

Further, he explained that his interest in a trans-African pipeline predates his involvement with Tsakos and that a letter the senator wrote for Tsakos promoted ''only the concept'' of a pipeline and not Tsakos's project specifically. The senator said in his press conference that the pipeline would ''substantially reduce the risk of nuclear war'' in the volatile Persian Gulf.

Hatfield, whose efforts blocked funds for covert military aid to Nicaraguan rebels, has a strong record of supporting cuts in military spending. And he throws up his hands and shakes his head in bewilderment over reports that Tsakos was an arms dealer and ''that I was going to be used in securing arms for the Sudanese.''

''Well, it's preposterous,'' he declared. ''In the context of 30 years of voting against military appropriations, the people will just have to weigh that record against my accusers.''

The consensus among political writers here is that the senator's his reputation holds steady in a state that has awarded him three Senate terms. But, they add, the reading isn't in yet on how the public will perceive the $55,000 charity donation - as admission of guilt or a concession to the appearance of impropriety.

The senator's Democratic opponent, Margie Hendriksen, is ''suddenly being taken much more seriously'' by national Democrats, says her campaign manager, Mona Sturges. More money will be pumped into the campaign from out of state, she says, as Democrats eye the possibility of a Hatfield upset that could give them a Senate majority.

''I don't know what the political consequences will be,'' says Hatfield, ''but there could be a positive one. It could be that the prevailing view was that I was a shoo-in and that I was too powerful, too strong, ... so (supporters may have thought) they don't have to worry about getting out there and campaigning. It could be a plus.''

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