IT'S nearly decision time for the six members of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. What they have to decide is whether five of their colleagues violated Senate rules in contacting government regulators about the case of savings and loan owner Charles Keating, who had contributed over $1 million to them or their causes. It is the last of the ethics issues of the 101st Congress, in which ethical questions played an unusually large role. Ethics issues caused the resignations of Speaker of the House Jim Wright and the third-ranking House Democrat, Tony Coelho. Two House members were investigated on questions of sexual misconduct. And Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota was denounced by the Senate for some of his financial dealings.
In the Keating case this committee's decision won't come easy. Each of the five senators must be judged individually, and circumstances and testimony are different for each one.
Committee members say - as ethics committee members before them have - that sitting in judgment of their colleagues makes them uncomfortable. Further, sworn testimony conflicts and the opinions of committee members differ.
The testimony of Sen. Donald Riegle (D) of Michigan illustrates both points.
As the testimony wound down this week, Senator Riegle became the third of the five senators under scrutiny to testify before the committee. He was preceded by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and John Glenn (D) of Ohio. Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, said he could not testify because of illness. And, as of this writing, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona had yet to testify.
All five have denied any wrongdoing.
Senator Riegle flatly contradicted the testimony of two witnesses who previously testified that he set up a key meeting on April 2, 1987, between the other four senators and the government's then-chief savings and loan regulator, Edwin Gray.
The purpose of the meeting was for the four to find out from Mr. Gray why the government probe of Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, owned by Mr. Keating, was taking so long. Gray had testified that he felt pressured by the presence of four senators at that meeting.
Gray told the committee that Riegle suggested the meeting. Keating's former top congressional lobbyist, James Grogan, testified that Riegle had arranged the meeting. Senator Riegle insisted he did not arrange the meeting, and that he did not participate in any way in setting the time or place for it, or in notifying either Gray or the other four senators of the meeting. Under questioning by the committee chairman, Sen. Howell Heflin (D) of Alabama, Riegle said: ``I don't believe I did'' know in advance that the meeting would occur.
He added that his ``best recollection'' was that he learned of the gathering sometime between its end and a meeting five days later that he and the other four senators attended with federal regulators from the government's San Francisco office.
The stark contradiction caused Senator Heflin to say he was ``puzzled ... as to how that meeting was called and who selected the place, who selected the time'' for it. This meeting first raised Gray's ire, to which his then-staff members have testified, over what he charges was improper pressure from senators.
But Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, the committee vice chairman says that ``to me,'' the San Francisco meeting is ``not terribly significant.'' Senator Riegle's testimony was the next-to-last before Senator DeConcini's. After that, the committee will begin reviewing in private two months of testimony and stacks of documents before reaching its decision. It's what actually occurred in the meeting that matters, Senator Rudman said.
From the opening statement of committee special counsel Robert Bennett it has been evident that the actions of Senators Riegle, DeConcini, and Cranston are more in question than those of Senators McCain and Glenn. Mr. Bennett said DeConcini and Cranston had played the most active roles with federal regulators on behalf of Keating, owner of the Lincoln Savings and Loan, which ultimately went bankrupt at a taxpayer cost of some $2 billion. Bennett said that Riegle had played somewhat less of a role than these two, but larger than Riegle admitted.
As McCain ended his appearance this week Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, a committee member, said he thought McCain ``did nothing improper'' and, in fact, refused to do so when asked. McCain has testified that he ended his personal friendship of several years with Keating when the latter complained that McCain had not helped him sufficiently with regulators.
If the committee votes that the Senate should take action against any of the five senators, that recommendation will go to the full Senate for its consideration.