Scandal in an election year

Governmental scandal in an election year could be turned into a blessing in disguise. It depends on the American people. Suppose they don't retreat into the cynicism and inertia of "Everybody does it."

Suppose they see that every nonvoter is failing to take a part in building an honest government of officials who Don'tm do it.

Suppose the current accumulation of charges -- first involving administration figures and now involving members of Congress once again -- were to galvanize the electorate into reversing the shameful decline in voter turnout.

In short, suppose the people were to resume their share of the responsiblity in obtaining the quality of government and governmental servant they want. Such an outcome could have positive effects far outweighing and outlasting the negative effects of the wrongdoing that has allegedly been detected.

To forestall the other public reaction -- a heightening of the cynicism spawned by Vietnam, Watergate, and Koreagate -- government must now do its part, too. The public must have hope that office does not provide immunity to the workings of justice.

The factor of the election year did seem to have instant impact on Congress's ethical sensitivities. Both houses have plunged into preparing inquiries even before official charges have been made against the seven representatives and one senator named in the press as subjects of an FBI bribery probe. Some of those named were said to have been under congressional scrutiny already.

But the public at this writing had been left in the dark by the FBI and the Justice Departments themselves. The only official FBI acknowledgment of stories from unnamed federal sources seemed to be director William Webster's broadcast statement that the FBI had expert legal advice to prevent its "sting" operations from being vulnerable to the legal defense of "entrapment."

From press accounts, members of Congress and more than a score of state and local officials appear to have been caught by sting tactics. Beginning in 1978, FBI agents reportedly posed as representatives of Arab businessmen in order to tempt members of organized crime to sell stolen government securities and other loot. Then associates of members of Congress allegedly began contacting the sting operatives to arrange meetings. According to another story, an informant told the FBI of those supposed to be open to corruption.

One immigration officer has been arraigned for taking a bribe in a sting operation. The government is said to be preparing to go to grand juries. But the whole strange story remains in an uncertain realm as far as the public is concerned.

"The Department of Justice will have no comment at all about specific investigations of political corruption or white-collar crime," said a Justice spokesman, announcing an investigation into how the news got out. "The disclosures made by the media are regrettable, because they may injure the reputations of innocent people."

It is for the sake of innocent people as much as anyone that the official facts should be brought out speedily. There is a legitimate question about how to give Congress the evidence it needs without damaging government prosecutions. The FBI and Justice Department information must be made public through legal processes as soon as possible.

Among general questions to be cleared up is just how the targets of the sting wer selected. Somehow freshman Senator Larry Pressler was approached -- and rejected an implied offer. Did other pass the test? Is the probe over as reported? If so, why? And, at least a footnote, did it have to be code-named "Abscam" -- for Arab scam -- with Arabs prejudicially singled out as likely bribers?

Like the international crises, the new congressional scandal diverts attention from the ethical questions remaining about members of President Carter's circle. But the Lance trial and Jordan investigation continue. On Friday Treasury Secretary Miller will face Senate questions about Textron's payoffs when he was its chairman.

It all adds up to a challenge not only to law enforcement and moral leadership but to the American people who, more than those in most countries, have the power to get the government they deserve -- if they will only use it.

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