White House Ethics a Lingering Question Mark

Despite scandals, Clinton administration isn't worse than some past presidencies.

When President Clinton took his seat in the Oval Office almost five years ago, he promised a new, higher ethical standard from his administration - and he signed an executive order to enforce it.

That day in January 1993 seems but a distant memory, as the stories of current and former administration officials in legal trouble continue to unfold.

Last week, former housing secretary Henry Cisneros was indicted for lying to federal agents and Congress about payments made to his former mistress. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt faces the possibility of a special-prosecutor investigation into a controversial decision on an Indian casino. And former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy still faces 35 counts in a corruption indictment, after four charges were dropped this week.

Of all the Clinton administration officials who have been investigated, charged, and handed subpoenas, only one has been convicted and gone to jail: Webster Hubbell, former associate attorney general, who was found guilty of cheating his former law firm and clients - actions he took before joining the administration.

But there is no doubt that throughout Clinton's presidency, there has been a steady odor of miscreancy hovering over Washington - certainly not of Watergate proportions, but enough to keep several special prosecutors and legions of staff lawyers busy.

In the history of administration misdeeds, how does the Clinton presidency stack up so far? And is it Clinton's fault that many of his Cabinet secretaries have gotten in trouble?

"The ethical problems in the Clinton administration don't compare with what you had with Nixon or Iran-contra" under President Reagan, says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

But, he adds, "I think it does say something about a president if a lot of people around him are either convicted or face allegations that raise questions about their character or honesty."

On one level, say presidential observers, a president can't be held accountable for the private moral decisions of his appointees, such as how a Cabinet secretary chooses to handle questions about a former mistress. But in a more general sense, any chief executive sets a tone for his administration and does ultimately bear responsibility for the performance of his appointees.

During Mr. Reagan's two terms, more than 100 officials faced investigation - and yet Reagan himself was viewed as above the fray. He remains a beloved figure by the American public.

Presidents Carter and Bush were viewed by the public as decent men who ran pretty clean administrations. And they both failed to win second terms.

As for Clinton, his success as a politician stems from his formidable skills as a campaigner, political observers agree. But the American public's acceptance, more or less, of his personal ethics - such as maneuvering to avoid the draft and his relations with women - may simply be a reflection of the times and of his generation, says Alonzo Hamby, a presidential historian at Ohio University in Athens.

"Maybe he's not a lot different from a lot of us," says Mr. Hamby.

Of the recent ethical allegations to emerge, those surrounding Interior Secretary Babbitt may be the most damaging. The case involves an Interior Department decision to reject a permit for an Indian casino project in Wisconsin - a ruling that favored the position of another Indian tribe that had made contributions to the Clinton campaign.

A preliminary Justice Department investigation is looking into whether Babbitt had violated federal law in the casino matter. On Monday, Attorney General Janet Reno concluded that the investigation should not examine Clinton's role.

But the danger for Clinton is that the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case will open the door to a broader inquiry into the fund-raising practices of the 1996 campaign.

The Babbitt case, then, would be the first special prosecutor to target specifically the question of whether political favors were traded for contributions.

As Washington contemplates the possible appointment of yet another special prosecutor - adding to the list that includes Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation, Cisneros and Espy's prosecutors, and even some holdover investigations from earlier administrations (such as the scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development) - some legal experts are beginning to voice concern that the proliferation of special prosecutors has diminished their value.

"They have become a commonplace," says Stanley Kutler, a legal historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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