• U.S.

The Speaker’s Wrong Stuff

3 minute read
Margaret Carlson

Rumors about the financial dealings of Speaker of the House Jim Wright have been accumulating for years, like interest at the troubled savings and loan associations he has been accused of helping a little too much. But the allegations took on a new seriousness two weeks ago, when the citizens’ lobby Common Cause, followed several days later by 72 Republican Congressmen, asked the House ethics committee to investigate.

Together the two requests touch on most of Wright’s questionable financial dealings. These include his intervention with Anwar Sadat on behalf of a businessman friend seeking oil rights in Egypt and similar intervention at the Interior Department to influence the award of gas leases to a company in which Wright had a $15,000 investment. Wright is said to have sought special help for a savings and loan in Texas headed by one of his largest fund raisers. A recent allegation concerns 55% book royalties (10% to 15% is standard) that Wright has received for a cut-and-paste collection of speeches and anecdotes published by Texas Friend William Carlos Moore. Over the past 13 years, Moore’s businesses have received some $634,000 in consulting fees from Wright’s re-election committee, leading to the suspicion that Wright is using the excessive royalties to convert the campaign funds to his personal use.

Why this, why now? For years Wright has been operating in an ethical no- man’s-land occupied by many members of Congress: that safe, vast expanse between a simple thanks for services performed and an envelope stuffed with cash. Congressman Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican move against the Speaker, did not include the allegations concerning the Texas savings and loan associations, perhaps because other Congressmen could be open to criticism for similar activity. Gingrich faced embarrassment, anyway, when it was revealed that he kept a $13,000 advance for a book he never wrote.

Congressional Republicans, already stung by association with the “sleaze factor” in the Reagan Administration, find the potential for a so’s-your-old-man response a small price to pay for throwing a cloud over the man who is the highest-ranking Democrat in the country and who will be banging the gavel at this summer’s Democratic Convention. At midweek Vice President George Bush played this game when he turned questions about the ethics of Attorney General Edwin Meese into a call for an independent counsel to investigate Wright.

The unprecedented charges against a Speaker underscore Republicans’ resentment of his conduct since he replaced Tip O’Neill 18 months ago. Wright has none of the camaraderie that O’Neill used to keep harmony in the House. The Republicans accuse Wright of ramming bills onto the House floor, bypassing committees and avoiding amendments.

No one expects the fallout from the Speaker’s problems to be as serious as that from Meese’s, but Gingrich and his colleagues have reduced the value of sleaze as a campaign issue by demonstrating its bipartisan nature. There may be more damage to the tradition of stilted politeness among lawmakers, who call one another “distinguished colleague” no matter what the circumstances. When asked his feelings toward Gingrich after the complaint was filed, Wright, in high Texas dudgeon, said they are similar to those “of a fire hydrant for a dog.”

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