Ethics in the Shadows

THE American public is still waiting to see if the United States Senate takes ethics seriously. Unlike members of the House, senators haven't weaned themselves from fat speaking fees (honorariums), and both houses are dragging their feet on meaningful campaign-finance reform. Then there's the Senate Ethics Committee's investigation of Sen. Dave Durenberger (R) of Minnesota. It is alleged that Senator Durenberger, among other things, evaded Senate rules limiting honorariums by disguising over $100,000 in payments as book-promotion fees, and used phony transactions involving a condominium he owns to obtain improper rent reimbursements. These are serious charges, in support of which the committee's special counsel compiled four thick volumes of evidence.

The committee's public hearing on the charges was expected to last two weeks. Last Wednesday, however, after just two days of opening arguments, the committee ended the hearing when Senator Durenberger said he wouldn't contest the special counsel's evidence and threw himself on the committee's mercy. So the committee will make its judgment and recommend a penalty, if any, solely on the written evidence.

This emits a strong whiff of an Old Boy deal cut to spare embarrassment not just to Senator Durenberger, but to the Senate as a whole. ``Let's not wash our dirty linen in public,'' the committee appears to have concluded.

The committee's rules don't preclude public hearings even if the subject of an investigation waives the right to rebut the evidence against him. Such hearings could serve an adjudicatory purpose, by allowing committee members to hear witnesses with their own ears and to question them further. Beyond that, such hearings would serve the public's interest in understanding both the ethical challenges senators face and the lapses into which they may be tempted.

Yes, the special counsel's volumes of evidence are public; but even if a few reporters elect to comb the thousands of pages, their stories will not substitute for the informative impact of live testimony in open hearings.

Even if the Ethics Committee finds Durenberger culpable and issues a stern rebuke, it failed in part of its responsibility to the American people.

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