Ethics act bites down. Nofziger conviction renews debate over `sleaze factor' in Reagan administration

A second close confidant of President Reagan has been convicted on charges connected with lobbying activity. Yesterday Lyn Nofziger, the President's former political director, was convicted of violating the Ethics in Government Act by illegally lobbying top White House aides in behalf of a private company. In December, former Reagan aide Michael Deaver was convicted of lying under oath about his lobbying activities.

``This will create enormous ripples on the practical level, although legally it's not path breaking,'' says Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law School. He points out that lower level government employees have been convicted under the 1978 ethics law, ``but because of Mr. Nofziger's high political profile, this will have a great preventive effect.''

The law prohibits former federal employees from lobbying former government associates for one year after they leave office.

Nofziger worked at the White House until early 1982. A few weeks after he left, he sent Edwin Meese III, who was presidential counsellor at the time and is now the attorney general, a memo in behalf of the Wedtech Corporation. Nofziger urged Mr. Meese, who is now attorney general, to help persuade the Army to give the company a no-bid contract to build small gasoline engines. Wedtech got the contract.

Nofziger said yesterday that the verdict will be appealed.

The conviction is an indication of the level of ethics displayed by Reagan administration officials, says Michael Waldman, legislative director of Public Citizens' Congress Watch, a Ralph Nader organization. ``Several busloads of Reagan administration officials have broken the law, flaunted the law, or otherwise committed ethically questionable activities,'' he says.

More than 100 aides have faced allegations of questionable activities. Some are or have been in the upper echelons of the administration.

Attorney General Meese was cleared of wrongdoing in one investigation, but a special prosecutor is probing his ties to Wedtech, which has been implicated in several plots to illegally influence high government officials.

Others whose conduct has come under question include Anne Burford, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who allowed exceptions to environmental regulations to some industrial polluters; and former NASA administrator James Beggs, who was charged with defrauding the government. Mrs. Burford resigned; the fraud charge against Mr. Beggs was dismissed.

Professor Rothstein says that, ``in some measure,'' the large number of investigations into Reagan administration officials ``is an accident of circumstance.''

``It takes legal ethics some time to develop,'' he adds.

Others, however, do not view the record quite so charitably. Mr. Waldman lays the blame at the feet of the Justice Department - which, he says, has been more of a hindrance than a help to special investigations into the affairs of former government employees. For example, last month the Justice Department succeeded in having the law allowing judicial appointment of special prosecutors overturned by a federal appeals court.

``When the Department of Justice goes out of its way to challenge the constitutionality of the special prosecutor law,'' Waldman says, ``that sends a clear message that the corruption cop is not on the beat.''

For some time, some members of Congress have felt that the Ethics in Government Act has been too nebulous to enforce. In the Deaver case, for example, special prosecutor Whitney North Seymour found it easier to prove purjury than a violation of the ethics law.

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina is expected to introduce a bill next week that tightens the law.

``My anti-lobbying bill before Congress might have put people like this on notice and prevented this [Nofziger] instance from occurring,'' he said yesterday.

The bill would lengthen the time that a former government employee would have to wait before lobbying his past colleagues to between 18 months and 2 years. In addition, the bill would cast a wider net for those prohibited from lobbying activities.

The Nofziger and Deaver convictions ``have come too late to affect most Reagan officials,'' who will leave with the administration, Waldman says. But, he says, ``the convictions will lead to higher ethical standards by former government officials in the future.''

Rothstein disagrees. ``Just because the government changes doesn't mean they don't have contacts,'' he says, especially if the next administration is Republican.

One big loser may be the quality of public service in the future, says Robert Goldwin, a resident legal scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ``The ethics laws have become so pervasive and complicated that it's imprudent to consider government service.'' He adds that if the conviction ``discourages people who come to government for the wrong reasons - to serve for a while and then profit from it - that's all to the good.''

Officials under fire

Among Reagan administration officials convicted, under investigation, or exonerated:

Michael K. Deaver, former White House aide, was convicted last December of lying to a congressional subcommittee and a grand jury.

Rita Lavelle, former assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, convicted of lying to Congress in December 1986, served three months in jail.

John Poindexter and Robert C. McFarlane, former national-security advisers, and a National Security Council aide, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, are expected to be indicted by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh in connection with their roles in the Iran-contra affair.

Attorney General Edwin Meese III is under investigation by special prosecutor James C. McKay in connection with his association with the Wedtech Corporation.

Theodore B. Olson, former assistant US attorney general, was accused of lying to Congress. His investigation is on hold pending appeal of a federal court ruling that challenges the law giving special prosecutors their authority.

Raymond J. Donovan, former secretary of labor, was acquitted in May 1987 of fraud charges. The Justice Department in June 1987 dropped fraud charges against James Beggs, former administrator of NASA.

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