In this high-profile race, no stone goes unturned

Charges of financial impropriety could tarnish Rick Lazio's squeaky-clean image.

Only a week ago, Republican senatorial candidate Rep. Rick Lazio was assuring radio personality Don Imus that he had no skeletons in his closet.

"I've never invested in a single cattle futures in my life," quipped Mr. Lazio, in a reference to Hillary Clinton's ability to turn $1,000 into $100,000 in the commodity pits.

Perhaps he spoke too soon. Now questions are surfacing over an unusual investment of his own. In 1997, Lazio bought a small amount of high-risk options in Quick & Reilly, a discount brokerage house run by some of his campaign contributors. A short time later, the company was bought out by another firm, and the congressman made a 600 percent return.

While Lazio denies any wrongdoing, questions surrounding the investment are providing an early test of a candidate with a Boy Scout image.

Already, supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton are calling for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate for possible insider trading.

The incident underscores how, in today's world of bare-knuckle politics, candidates never know when something from their past could come back to haunt them.

Political operatives are routinely trying to ferret out information that could be used to tarnish an opponent's reputation. Reporters comb through financial disclosure reports with fine-toothed pens. Candidates are even hiring private investigators to do opposition research.

"If someone were to leave politics and go into prize fighting, it would be a step up in terms of ethics," says Jay Severin, a political analyst in New York. "Darwin is alive and well in the political arena."

To a certain extent, the latest questions surrounding Lazio represent one more baptism into the world of high-profile national politics for a candidate who has represented a quiet district on Long Island.

Tough opponent

In Mrs. Clinton, the young congressman is facing a tough campaigner. "He's pretty much a blank slate and Clinton is trying to define him before he can define himself," says Jennifer Duffy, senate editor of Cook's Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes congressional races.

Still, most analysts don't expect the Quick & Reilly incident to have much impact on the race - in part because of Lazio's newness. "Let's call it strike one," says pollster John Zogby. "It alerts him he better have no other skeletons in his closet."

It may be too soon to make that assessment. Lazio has yet to release his last few years of income tax returns. His campaign office says he will do it sometime this summer. It is a tradition in New York for Senate candidates to release their returns.

"Basically you have to assume his accountants are combing through very carefully to be sure everything is defensible and that takes time," says Mr. Zogby. "It's way too early to assume there is anything they are trying to hide but if it's not out by September, then it raises some questions."

Analyzing tax returns is one way candidates now scrutinize their opponents. Often the wealthy don't want their returns made public. For example, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia does not release his taxes.

This spring former Gov. Jim Florio made it part of his campaign when his opponent John Corzine, a multi-millionaire, only provided a summary of his taxes. "We know he made $44 million and paid a 15 percent tax rate, but we don't know what his avoidance strategies are," Mr. Florio told the Monitor during the campaign.

Many watchdog groups would prefer that candidates release their taxes. "The more disclosure the better," says Steve Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions to the candidates.

Even if a candidate does not send out his past form 1040s, a lot can be found in the current financial disclosure forms, which are available on the Internet.

Only last weekend, the Washington Post revealed that Ralph Nader, running on the Green ticket, is worth $3.8 million, with investments in high tech stocks.

Lazio's options trading came to light when an anonymous individual, calling himself a Republican, sent the information first to Newsday and then to other publications, including the Monitor.

Worrying information

On the surface, the information is worrying. Commenting on the details surrounding the Quick & Reilly trade, without knowing Lazio's identity, a former SEC attorney, Bradley Houser, said, "It's not an unlikely set of circumstances for the SEC to look at."

But told who the trader was, he added, "It's not unusual for the SEC to pursue a matter deemed immaterial if the individual or the entity is high profile, to get a little play in the press."

In fact, Ms. Duffy thinks an SEC investigation of Lazio could be perceived by the public as an unfair attack. "It might actually help his fundraising," she says. "A whole movement out there would fire up."

And there's no evidence that New Yorkers - as turned on to the stock market as any set of voters - would hold the trading against him, anyway. "People might ask him if he has any good stock tips," jokes Zogby.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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