D'Amato: Skating on Ethics Edge?

Despite proximity to scandals, corporate ties, he is feisty, unapologetic, but possibly vulnerable. POLITICS: NEW YORK

DURING his eight years on Capitol Hill, Alfonse D'Amato has gained distinction as a dealmaker second to none - a reputation he clearly relishes, and uses to enhance his standing with voters at home. But such distinction has its price: The Republican junior senator from New York has faced a steady stream of complaints over alleged improprieties, some of which he says are misunderstandings. Others he simply denies.

At a time when even the hint of scandal has set back several prominent Washington careers, Senator D'Amato is notable for his ability to rebound from fairly serious charges. Even so, he once again finds himself under congressional and news media scrutiny.

In recent months, D'Amato has been criticized following revelations that his cousin and a neighbor's son may have improperly obtained HUD-program homes intended for low-income and minority residents in D'Amato's hometown of Island Park. The home sales occurred in 1980, when D'Amato was a powerful local official and Senate candidate. D'Amato later helped the neighbor, Geraldine McGann, get a promotion to a top regional post in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Ms. McGann has been suspended and is being investigated by HUD.

D'Amato is also under fire for having pressed former HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce to allocate $1 million toward building a pool in D'Amato's relatively affluent village. Critics charge it was an inappropriate expenditure; once it was publicized, the village announced it would return the money.

In a telephone interview, D'Amato dismissed the criticism. He says the controversy over the pool is unwarranted: ``Those beaches were polluted. People wouldn't use the beach.'' Of the subsidized housing flap, D'Amato says, ``I had nothing to do with it. [My cousin] shouldn't be disqualified because I'm in politics. It's guilt by association.''

Capping events this July, Mark Green, a former Ralph Nader prot'eg'e and president of the New York-based Democracy Project, filed a 32-page formal complaint with the Senate ethics committee requesting an investigation of D'Amato's activities over the years.

Senator D'Amato dismisses the many complaints as a misinterpretation of the actions of a hard worker. ``I work my tail off for New York and for programs that are good and right - and I deliver,'' he says. ``I'm proud of that. I fight for the causes I believe in.''

Washington insiders read D'Amato in a variety of ways, but all agree that he fights for Washington's spoils with more vigor than any other senator. ``D'Amato really works the vineyards for the state,'' says Peter Teeley, a former press secretary to Vice-President George Bush. ``He's a terrier for New York,'' says one Democrat. ``He's maniacal about bringing home the bacon.''

Others depict the senator as something of a dinosaur, a throwback to a time when politicians went about their business with little concern for appearances. ``It seems you can't have a financial scandal in Washington without D'Amato having his hand in it,'' says Mr. Green, who ran against D'Amato in New York's 1986 Democratic primary. Political indoctrination

D'Amato's initiation in the give-and-take school of politics dates to his pre-Washington political career in Nassau County, Long Island, where he rose through the ranks of the powerful local Republican organization. His mentor, Joseph Margiotta, was convicted of extorting from insurance companies in return for county business.

``In his past history, there has been a lot of controversy, but nothing has ever stuck,'' says Karl Ottosen, D'Amato's 1980 campaign manager. ``Part of it stems from the way politics are played in Nassau County. It's a friendly game they play. The Republicans out there, they control everything. And things get a little sloppy.''

D'Amato participated in a system in which government employees were required to kick back 1 percent of their salaries to the county GOP organization he helped lead. (D'Amato says the system was voluntary, but employees disputed that and sued to get their money back.) As a Senate candidate, D'Amato also received low-interest campaign loans from a bank that received millions in interest-free deposits from Hempstead, Long Island, where he was presiding supervisor. Contractors accused him of approving kickbacks in return for approving local contracts; his appearance as a character witness at the trial of an alleged mob-connected racketeer did nothing to improve his reputation.

After his arrival in Washington in 1981, the pace of revelations let up, but only slightly. D'Amato's campaign accepted illegal contributions from Wedtech, Unisys, and other defense contractors, although the senator disclaims knowledge of the gifts. He also was chastised for lobbying hard on a $79 million federal contract for an experimental engine made by the firm of a key financial backer; other senators and the US Department of Energy called the flawed engine ``bad technology.'' Banking industry connections

Much criticism has centered on D'Amato's role as a ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, where he has been a highly vocal advocate of the New York-based securities industry. ``He went out of his way to do them favors,'' says Bartlett Naylor, a former head of investigations for the Banking Committee. In 1986, the senator was identified by the Wall Street Journal as having accepted sizable contributions (nearly half a million dollars) from New York securities firms, which coincided with his change in position on an issue concerning takeovers. In his oversight capacity on the Banking Committee, D'Amato also hired Michael Kinsella, a former securities industry lobbyist, as his chief aide.

In his 1986 campaign, D'Amato spent $12.9 million, most of it donations from political-action committees and corporate interests. The amount spent was more than any candidate or challenger spent nationwide. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader points out that such large sums are not without strings.

``[D'Amato's] practice is to get grants and contracts for businesses who will then turn around and give contributions,'' Mr. Nader says. ``It's like he has a sign on his door: `I'll get the goodies for you if you'll give to me.'''

The senator says the many New Yorkers whose jobs depend on Wall Street or the defense industry are well served by his close links with those interests. ``I have been productive,'' he says. ``Do people want me to apologize for that? Ridiculous!''

D'Amato insists that too much is made of corporate ties. ``Over 30,000 people contributed to me in my last campaign, mostly $50 and $100,'' he says. A street fighter - loved at home

It is in New York, where he brings so many federal dollars, that D'Amato is most popular. Fellow senators, however, view him as something of a street fighter. Adhering to decorum, senators contacted for this story, through spokesmen, declined comment for the record. Others were reluctant to tangle with D'Amato: ``Al's got a long memory,'' says one.

Rep. Guy Molinari of New York, a fellow Republican and a former D'Amato Washington apartment-mate who has often been on the opposite side of political battles, credits D'Amato with great effectiveness. ``He will go into an area where there's a limited pot and get his share,'' Mr. Molinari says. ``Many areas of this country [have a] representative [who] has never learned to do that, and they get short-changed. ... He has been there for my district.''

He says D'Amato encourages controversy through his actions. When he told D'Amato to be a bit more careful about appearances, Molinari recalls, ``Al shrugged it off. He said, `I'm clean, I know I'm clean, and I'm not going to worry about it.'''

D'Amato is known to want to run for governor. But William Schneider, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, says he believes that if D'Amato were to seek a Senate leadership position, a Cabinet post, or other nationally visible spot, his style and actions would become issues. ``He's never been charged,'' Mr. Schneider says, ``but these days they can get you on judgment.''

``D'Amato is always one step ahead,'' Molinari says. ``He has incredible intuition, knowing what's happening someplace, and he gets there faster than anyone else, and gets it for himself and his district. He's a very clever man. He just never stops studying the field.''

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