Mr. Brown's Woes, Part 2

HAVING been cleared by one Justice Department investigation, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown finds himself in another. This time the inquiry, which includes the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and congressional Republicans, involves a thatch of potential illegality and conflict-of-interest charges that could take months to settle, running well into the 1996 campaign.

Mr. Brown is one of the most effective members of the Cabinet. He is a dealmaker and a bridge to the black community. For a president who ran on the economy and desires good ties with business, he is a major asset. Brown has earned the respect of corporate leaders and has become a tireless advocate of US firms abroad - bringing in contracts and generally ``making things happen'' in China, the Middle East, and Europe.

Yet the very whirlwind of activity that has been a strength in Brown's performance as commerce secretary may be a weakness in his personal ethics profile. He faces 16 different charges. The most serious involve his connections with Texas businesswoman Nolanda Hill, whose loan default on a broadcast company co-owned by Brown cost taxpayers $23 million. Charges also include unreported and possibly illegal earning of more than $500,000, favoritism, and undisclosed interests in other firms.

Brown insists he has done nothing wrong or improper. But the scope and pattern of charges suggest he has been at least reckless in the drawing of ethical lines. A number of Commerce Department officials have already jumped ship - including Brown's chief of staff, his counsel, and two deputy assistants.

As a tough-fighting insider, Brown will probably not step down. Nor is it likely that President Clinton will soon ask him to. But the situation won't go away as quickly as did earlier accusations of $700,000 in bribes from the Vietnamese government. Investigations could lead to a special prosecutor followed by federal charges.

Brown had considered running Clinton's 1996 campaign. An ongoing federal probe would make it difficult to have Brown head the reelection campaign of a president who promised to be a model in ethical behavior.

Like Wall Streeters who joyfully ``swam with the sharks'' during the 1980s, the commerce secretary may move quickly and adroitly enough to escape official or legal harm. Attorney General Janet Reno may find the charges don't add up. But if momentum in the case doesn't slow, the White House must face the question: At what point is Ron Brown a liability?

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