The Speaker's Ethics

IF the ethics investigation of Speaker Jim Wright looks bad for the powerful Texas congressman, it looks good for the House of Representatives. The willingness of the House ethics panel to appoint a terrier of a lawyer to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by the Speaker, and the panel's bipartisan conclusion that there is ``reason to believe'' that Mr. Wright violated House ethics rules, signal a new congressional sensitivity to sleaze. We don't presume to judge Wright's actions. He may be innocent of all save what he calls ``technical'' violations of House rules. But even if he is exonerated of the more serious charges - unless by blatant arm-twisting and appeals to us-vs.-them partisanship - the House will have demonstrated a heightened responsibility for members' conduct.

For Wright himself, however, it's a lose-lose situation. If the full House votes even to reprimand him - a less severe punishment than censure - it's hard to see how he could survive as Speaker beyond this term. As Speaker, Wright is the most powerful Democrat in the land and third in line for the presidency. A reprimand would mean that, in the eyes of a majority of his peers, he knowingly sidestepped House rules to line his pockets. And even if he's cleared of the formal charges, Wright won't soon rid his name of ethical taint.

The principal charges against Wright fall into two categories. One is that he improperly accepted, and failed to report, ``gifts'' from a longtime friend and business associate, George Mallick. These include use of a luxury car and a condominium, and payments - ostensibly salary - to Wright's wife for ill-defined work. The total value of these benefits was about $100,000. The ethics panel concluded that at the time he was conferring these gifts on Wright, Mallick had an interest in legislation before Congress.

The other main charges against Wright stem from the unusually high royalties he received from his book, ``Reflections of a Public Man,'' which appears to have been a cut-'n-paste collation of Wright's speeches and aphorisms slapped together by an aide. A large percentage of the book's total sales was made in bulk to lobbyists. Other bulk purchases were made by organizations before which Wright appeared, allegedly in lieu of honorariums; Wright would have been unable to keep the honorariums, as he was above the limit on such fees, but he was able to keep payments designated as royalties.

Whether or not these arrangements broke House rules, they form a picture of a man who shrewdly manipulated those rules, always with one foot on the boundary and an eye for the bottom line.

The ethics panel is to be commended for not shying away from what has to have been a difficult, even painful duty. Whatever the full House does, may it do so without losing its nerve.

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