Even an Ethicist Can Get Splashed by Whitewater

''I hope you will explain me," said Sam Dash, and I said I would try.

Never in the 23 years I have known him have I seen the one-time Philadelphia prosecutor, the Senate Watergate chief counsel who helped bring down President Nixon, so much on the defensive - even while denying he is on the defensive.

Sam Dash, a Georgetown University professor, is an authority on legal ethics and helped to frame the post-Watergate statute creating the office of special prosecutor. It seemed natural therefore that when Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr wanted a consultant on ethics, he hired Professor Dash.

Mr. Starr recently came under press attack, charging him with conflict of interest in continuing a flourishing private practice for clients, some of whom, like the tobacco industry, are dedicated to opposing President Clinton. Sam Dash, who is a compulsive explainer, has spent a lot of time explaining the integrity of prosecutor Starr.

Well, sort of. He told one reporter that what Starr is doing is "proper, but it does have an odor to it." Then he explained to another reporter that he meant to say that not he, but others might detect an odor. That led Lloyd Grove of The Washington Post to ask, sarcastically, whether he was recusing his own sense of smell.

So, now Dash has become an issue along with Starr, having to face questions from the press about whether he is allowing his prodigious reputation to be used as a shield for the prosecutor. He finds himself having to explain that the $3,200 a week he is paid is a normal lawyer's fee - and would be a lot more if he billed for all the extra hours he puts in. An authority on ethics, who has taught and testified in court about ethics, Dash has trouble understanding how his ethics can be questioned.

"I know," he says, "it's this business of perception. But I know how I see myself and I comply with my own standards. At 31 I would be very upset about all this. At 71 I'm relaxed. I'm not worried about the perceptions of others."

But then he goes on to say that he was misquoted here and misrepresented there, and how a reporter would turn into an interview his efforts to explain why he didn't want to give in to an interview. And next we are reminiscing about what he sees as the glory days of the Senate Watergate investigation, next to which the Whitewater investigation pales.

Later in May, Dash will be going to Heidelberg University Law School in Germany as an exchange professor for the summer session. He hastens to explain that this was arranged before he went to work for the independent counsel. But it is not clear that he will be returning to the job. If Starr asks him, he will consider it, he says. Which means that it is not automatic.

So, how to explain my friend, Sam Dash? No doubt he sees himself as pure at heart. And he finds it hard to believe, after all these years teaching about ethics and perceptions, that anyone could perceive him as being used to enhance the reputation of someone with his own perception problems.

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