Sessions Case an Ethics Quagmire

The Justice Department's accusations FBI director raise questions about behavioral standards and accusers' motives

FROM the moment he took office, President Clinton has been forced to deal with politically treacherous, if legally minor, ethics battles surrounding the nation's leading law enforcement posts.

Even as Zoe Baird's nomination for attorney general was crashing over her employment of illegal immigrants, a Justice Department report accused Federal Bureau of Investigation Director William Sessions of repeated abuse of his position for petty financial gain. Baird left clean slate

After intense negative public reaction, Ms. Baird reluctantly walked away from the nomination last Friday leaving Mr. Clinton, who had picked the corporate attorney even though he knew of her transgression, a clean slate to try again.

But Mr. Sessions's case is more complicated and promises to drag out until a new attorney general can sort through the allegations for the new administration. (The FBI is a branch of the Justice Department, which is headed by the attorney general.)

After a six-month investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, Sessions was accused, among other things, of evading income taxes on the use of his chauffeur-driven limousine, using FBI vehicles to drive his wife to social functions and on personal errands, making personal trips to visit family with his wife on FBI planes, and improperly charging the government for a $10,000 fence around his home.

Sessions has rebutted all the charges. He says FBI counsel reviews all of the director's trips and determines whether they are personal or private. Similarly, he relied on the counsel's advice regarding his tax exemption for use of FBI vehicles.

There were only two instances in five years - not "routine" use - of FBI vehicles to transport his wife alone, he says. The fence, he claims, was built for security purposes and was recommended by bureau officials.

Aside from the primary issue of Sessions' guilt or innocence, the controversy raises several related concerns.

FBI morale and credibility could be damaged if the director is not either exonerated or ousted quickly, say those familiar with the bureau.

"Institutionally, the agency winces when its leadership is being buffeted around," says former FBI director William Webster. Ethics standards lax

Even if Sessions can prove the allegations false, the very fact that there were so many instances in which he offered the appearance of impropriety suggests that ethics standards are not being pushed strongly enough - or even taught - to new federal executives, says a congressional aide who has been involved in investigations of other federal officials accused of ethical lapses.

Moreover, says the staffer, Sessions's alleged ethical violations - if true - are not unusual in the context of the federal executive service, where the line between a perquisite and abuse is not always clear.

"In the fraud, waste, and abuse lexicon, what Bill Sessions [is accused of] was abuse, and perhaps waste, but not fraud. Waste or abuse are problems of interpretation, of not following rules...fraud is a clear violation of rule," says Paul Light, a professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota.

There is widespread, bipartisan belief in Washington that, while there may be legitimate questions about Sessions' conduct, the way the case was handled had definite signs of an internecine Justice Department struggle.

Many observers - indeed, Sessions himself - claim the hasty release of the report on him in the waning hours of the Bush administration and its leak to the press point in this direction. Power play cited

"There is a power play going on by the Reagan-Bush people who had their knives out for [Sessions] because they never liked his independence," says Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, who chairs the House subcommittee with FBI oversight.

Mr. Edwards, a former FBI agent, says the Republican administrations had been unhappy with Sessions' strong push for affirmative action within the bureau. He also says that the director's pursuit of an independent investigation into the Justice Department's handling of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) case had angered then-Attorney General William Barr. Mr. Barr has denied this.

"The motive for raising the charges shouldn't distract us from the potential validity of the charges," says William Heffernan, a law professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and co-editor of the journal, Criminal Justice Ethics.

"[Sessions's rebuttals] bring his conduct into the realm of the reasonable. But we must further ask whether the rebuttals are true," Professor Heffernan says.

Similarly, observes former FBI director Webster, "What we have now is a fairly strong call for a fair hearing, a fair opportunity for him [Sessions] to respond."

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