Barney Frank Braces to Weather Looming Ethics Storm

HAVE recent admissions by Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts regarding mistakes in his personal life damaged his political career? Leaders of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, calling for his resignation, clearly hope so. Though Representative Frank is considered unlikely to step down, he admits that damage has been done and says he will not officially declare for reelection until the House ethics committee completes an investigation. Whatever happens, Republican committee spokesman Ted Frier insists the GOP will wage ``a very vigorous campaign'' in the congressman's Fourth District next time around.

Last week Frank confirmed a report in the Washington Times that he had hired a male prostitute in 1985, paying him out of personal funds, first for sex and later to do housekeeping chores. The congressman says he hoped to rehabilitate Steven Gobie, a convicted drug dealer, and says he wrote letters to Mr. Gobie's probation officer on his employee's behalf. Frank claims he fired Gobie 18 months later after learning from his landlord that a prostitution ring was being run out of his house.

The witty, fast-talking, sometimes brash Frank is a Harvard-educated lawyer who has long been known for his irreverent candor and his championing of liberal causes. He has not always followed strict party lines and has rankled a number of fellow Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature and on Capitol Hill.

Joyce Ferriabough, a Boston political consultant, recalls the stunned looks of fellow Democrats when Frank broke ranks at the Massachusetts Democratic Convention in 1986 to support a black candidate who had been excluded from a run on the party's slate for a statewide office by the so-called ``threshold rule,'' requiring 15 percent minimum statewide support. ``He's the kind of guy that will speak up against the tide,'' she says.

Massachusetts Democrats, if inclined, could sharply affect Frank's political prospects if district boundaries after the 1990 census are redrawn as expected. But the 1990 election would come first. Thus Frank's current constituents must decide if the congressman's strong record of public service on their behalf over five terms outweighs concerns raised by the new disclosures.

Several factors could work in his favor.

Though some have tried to distance themselves from him, several leading Democrats have rallied to support him, and the election is still over a year away.

His victory margins in recent elections have been very high; he won by 90 percent in 1986.

Also, Massachusetts is a liberal state where voters have tended to overlook personal indiscretions. Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts, the only other acknowledged homosexual in Congress, has been reelected three times since censured by Congress in 1983 for a sexual relationship 10 years earlier with a 17-year-old congressional page.

Republicans, who hold only one of the state's 11 congressional districts, are not considered a powerful and cohesive state force.

Frank's forthrightness during his 90-minute press conference and his written request last week to the House ethics panel to investigate the Frank-Gobie relationship for the public record are seen as steps likely to build confidence among his constituents.

``If he hadn't acted, the Republicans would have asked for an investigation,'' notes the Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess, a friend of Frank's. ``He has done all he can do in damage control.''

``He's been very upfront about all aspects of this that are relevant to public disclosure and I think people respect someone who says, `I made a goof and I admit it,''' says former Frank spokeswoman Thalia Schlesinger.

Still, sex-related scandals have brought down numerous other congressmen from former Rep. Wilbur Mills (D) of Arkansas to Rep. Robert Bauman (R) of Maryland. Also, Congress's current focus on ethics investigations may make Massachusetts voters think twice in this case. It may also strike voters as hypocritical that Frank has been in the forefront pushing for tougher ethics laws.

The effort by state Democratic Committee chairman Rep. Chester Atkins of Massachusetts to argue that mistakes in Frank's personal life have nothing to do with the conduct of public duties may not succeed. Certainly Massachusetts GOP leaders don't buy it.

``This has nothing to do with sexual preference, but Frank has violated the law on several counts and has misused his public position,'' says GOP state committee executive director Alexander Tennant.

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