Washington — Edwin Meese III's tumultuous tenure as attorney general may have as much impact on the next attorney general as on him. As Michael Dukakis and George Bush pare down lists for various Cabinet officers, Justice Department-watchers say they will likely take a hard look at the role and the r'esum'e of the next attorney general. If they do, it will be with Ed Meese on their minds.
Yesterday a three-judge panel made public the results of a 14-month-long investigation into Mr. Meese's activities. In the 814-page report, independent counsel James McKay chronicled seven areas - six of which were already known - that raised ethical red flags.
The area that was previously unknown involves Meese's 1985 tax return. He did not declare certain capital gains from the sale of securities in 1985, and he did not pay income tax on his capital gains from those sales when he filed the return.
While the independent counsel believed Meese violated the law by ``willfully filing a materially false tax return,'' he chose not to prosecute, because the rest of Meese's tax-paying history is clean and ``the evidence shows that ... Mr. Meese intended at some future time to file an amended return and to pay the tax due.''
Mr. McKay could have recommended criminal prosecution in another area as well. This area involved Meese's role in determining policy for the telecommunications industry at two different times, in 1986 and '87. While McKay concluded that ``the trier of fact would probably conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Meese violated'' the conflict-of-interest law, he declined to prosecute him, since, among other things, there was ``no evidence that Mr. Meese acted from motivation for personal gain.''
Mr. Meese's lawyers characterized those two possible violations as a ``cheap shot,'' saying that independent lawyers with expertise in the area determined there had been no violations of law. Nathan Lewin, Meese's lawyer, said that ``to us this is simply an effort to write a report that will in some way justify the enormous expense and extended duration'' of the 14-month, ``totally unjustified'' probe.
The report gave greatest attention to Meese's activities in connection with an Iraqi pipeline that was never built. According to the report, ``Mr. Meese became personally and closely involved'' in discussions about the pipeline, and gave investigators conflicting testimony about whether he could have known about and overlooked possible bribes earmarked for the Israeli Labor Party. McKay, however, found insufficient evidence to charge Meese with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits payments to foreign officials.
McKay also found insufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing in Meese's intervention on behalf of Wedtech Corporation.
In other areas, McKay had too little evidence to pursue criminal charges. These include whether Meese received inordinate gains from investments managed by a financial adviser; whether the Meeses had an improper relationship with a developer who was responsible for paying Mrs. Meese's salary; and whether Meese benefited from his relationship with E.Robert Wallach, thus violating the bribery or gratuity law.
Meese deflated the impact of the report two weeks ago when he announced his resignation. But the ripples from his controversial tenure will be felt in the choice of the next attorney general, both conservatives and liberals say.
``History has demonstrated time and again that it hasn't worked well for the president or the country to have a political crony as attorney general,'' says one liberal Justice Department watcher. He says the dual role of the attorney general - that of confidant to the president and the nation's top law enforcer - will now be questioned.
Others, like Terry Eastland, Meese's former spokesman, who is writing a history of the attorney general's office, worry that there will be a knee-jerk reaction in the choice of the next attorney general.
``One of the dangers of the Meese experience is for [the next president] to say, `All I care about is having someone who keeps out of trouble,''' Mr. Eastland says. ``To avoid trouble and never have a policy mission is sorry government.''
The attorney general, he and others say, should be politically and ideologically in tune with the president to effectively carry out his policies.
While the next attorney general may still be close to the president, his legal credentials, rather than his Oval Office friendship, will more likely carry more weight.
The next president should avoid ``appointing an individual who has not truly distinguished himself or herself in the law,'' says one conservative who held a high post in the Reagan Justice Department. Meese ``had done some very interesting and important things - chief of staff in Sacramento, Calif.; assistant district attorney; a law school professor - but I think he lacked distinction in the law,'' he says.
Peter Teeley, an aide to George Bush, agrees that there will be an emphasis on ``getting the best legal mind possible.'' But, he says, that person should have ``broad experience'' outside of the law as well - someone like Treasury Secretary James Baker, he adds.