MASSACHUSETTS Democrat Barney Frank appears to be bouncing back from the sex scandal that came close to ending his congressional career in September. After Representative Frank confirmed a Washington Times report that he had paid male prostitute Steve Gobie for sex and then hired him as a housekeeper, Republicans here and in Washington clamored for his resignation. Both the conservative Boston Herald and the liberal Boston Globe called on Frank to step down, as did a Roman Catholic weekly published in Frank's Fourth Congressional District.
For a few weeks, it appeared Frank's downhill slide could not be stopped and that his departure was imminent.
But Frank's damage-control has been effective. First, he called for a House ethics committee investigation. Then he took an uncharacteristically low profile in Washington for several weeks. Now he has begun to speak out on national issues again, despite the committee investigation.
Frank bought some time by asking the ethics committee to investigate Mr. Gobie's charges that Gobie had run a prostitution ring out of Frank's Washington, D.C., apartment with the congressman's knowledge. Gobie also claimed Frank, using his congressional privilege, had fixed parking tickets that Gobie received while using Frank's car in his prostitution business.
Frank says he did not know that Gobie was involved in prostitution until his landlady complained and Frank evicted him. The congressman also says he asked only that parking tickets Gobie incurred while chauffeuring Frank be waived.
The charges greatly embarrassed Capitol Hill Democrats, who were still smarting from the ethics messes that forced House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas and majority whip Tony Coelho (D) of California to resign. Some said privately they wished Frank would quietly step down.
Frank refused. But in an effort to get out of the spotlight, Frank, who was usually happy to offer a pithy quote, began avoiding the press. He continued a series of regular appearances in his district, however.
Meanwhile, Gobie leveled additional charges in newspaper interviews and TV talk-show appearances, alleging that Frank and other congressmen engaged in sexual misconduct in the House gymnasium. The Boston Globe reported that after he was fired, Gobie had driven Frank's car to a drug deal during which a back window was smashed out.
Frank vehemently denied Gobie's new charge. Last week the Globe reported that insurance documents showed Frank was not told of the damaged window, and that Gobie signed the claim forms.
At the end of October he hired former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs to handle his defense before the House committee. Soon after, supporters opened a legal defense fund.
The House ethics panel finally heard testimony from Gobie last week. Gobie, who has been convicted in the past on child pornography, cocaine possession, and shoplifting charges, has also given an interview to Penthouse magazine, to be published in the spring, in which he reportedly makes further charges against Frank and other congressmen. The committee is said to be checking into this as well. Both Frank's office and a committee aide refused to state whether Frank has yet testified or when he will do so.
Press reports say the ethics committee may rule on the case before Congress begins its next session in late January. If this occurs, Frank would receive only a reprimand, since any other penalty would require the approval of the full House.
Meanwhile, Frank has begun speaking out publicly again on major issues. On Nov. 14, he led a group of lawmakers in a news conference calling for sweeping defense cuts. The following day he spoke out against Civil Rights Commission chairman William Allen. On Dec. 9, he announced a General Accounting Office study which shows that the disabled and elderly are not properly receiving Medicare appeals hearings.
``Barney Frank is a hard worker and well respected,'' says Boston University political science professor Barbara Burrell. ``This has sustained him over the short run.'' But it is still an open question whether Frank can ever again be the effective liberal spokesman he once was.
In the end, his political future will depend on two things: on the outcome of the ethics committee's probe, and, should he run for reelection, on the judgment of his constituents in November 1990.