• U.S.

You Sold Your Office

5 minute read
Ed Magnuson

There was none of the crackling tension of Army v. McCarthy or Iran-contra, yet last week’s hearings of the Senate ethics committee were almost as historic. Never before had five Senators faced the judgment of their peers in such a public tribunal. Seated at separate tables to underscore their differing levels of involvement with indicted savings and loan wheeler-dealer Charles Keating, the five were fighting to regain reputations earned in a lifetime of public service. Their common challenge, as described in the gravel tones of committee chairman Howell Heflin of Alabama, was to erase the perception that “your services were bought by Charles Keating, that you were bribed, that you sold your office.”

( Also on trial, albeit indirectly, was an election-financing system in which Senators grovel for contributions to finance ever more costly TV campaigns, then listen best to the wishes of those who give the most. Anticipating the claim that each of the five had merely taken proper steps to help a constituent, special counsel Robert Bennett declared, “These activities went beyond the norm of constituent service.” In helping Keating, who awaits trial for defrauding investors in his defunct California-based Lincoln Savings & Loan and in its parent, American Continental Corp., the Senators, Bennett charged, had ignored the welfare of many more constituents — including the taxpayers, who will spend some $2 billion because of what he called “the looting of Lincoln.” Keating had contributed nearly $1.4 million to the Senators’ various campaign affiliations.

Bennett made distinctions between the culpability of each of the five. He implied that the actions of Arizona Republican John McCain and Ohio Democrat John Glenn were not serious enough to warrant punishment. He portrayed Michigan Democrat Donald Riegle as deceptive and suspiciously forgetful. He laid the heaviest blame on California Democrat Alan Cranston and Arizona Democrat Dennis DeConcini. Cranston, who will undergo cancer treatments this week, has announced that he will not seek re-election. Still, Bennett did not spare any of the five in his six-hour summation:

McCain. A longtime friend and vacation companion of the S&L boss, the Arizona Republican and his wife had frequently traveled on Keating’s company planes. McCain attended two key meetings in 1987 with the other Senators (Riegle missed one of them) to press their benefactor’s complaints that then Federal Home Loan Bank Board chairman Edwin Gray and the board’s San Francisco regulators were harassing Lincoln Savings. McCain asked the White House to name a Keating crony to the board. But McCain refused to relay a Keating- suggested compromise to the regulators. Though seeing no improper conduct by McCain, Bennett asked, “Why did he go to the meetings?”

Glenn. The astronaut hero wrote letters at Keating’s request, seeking a delay in imposing restrictions on investments by savings institutions. He also attended the two meetings with the other Senators. But when he learned at the second session that criminal charges were being considered against Lincoln, he cut off most dealings with Keating. A notable exception: he set up a meeting % between Lincoln’s chief and then House Speaker Jim Wright. Asked Bennett: “Why?”

Riegle. While claiming a foggy memory on how the meeting with Gray came about, Riegle insisted that he had been invited by DeConcini. Bennett said the facts were otherwise: it was Riegle who first approached Gray about a meeting. He did so after visiting the American Continental offices in Phoenix, where employees donated $11,000 to his campaign at Keating’s urging.

DeConcini. He was described as almost slavishly responsive to every request from Lincoln’s boss, including joining the drive to get Gray fired and a Keating crony appointed to the bank board. He was Keating’s main spokesman at both meetings with the other Senators and was the one who presented Keating’s compromise offer to the examiners. He also telephoned a California state official to intercede on Lincoln’s behalf. Asked Bennett: “Why is a U.S. Senator calling a state regulator?”

Cranston. Bennett claimed that Cranston had not only received $850,000 from Keating for voter-registration drives but also solicited four contributions from the S&L head, often after pleading on his behalf with regulators. Keating even extended Cranston a $300,000 line of credit that he could have used, but did not, in his 1986 campaign.

In their opening rebuttals, the Senators, who could be cleared by the committee or face punishment ranging from reprimands to expulsion from the Senate, insisted that their actions had been proper under existing rules. Riegle charged that Bennett had omitted exonerating evidence. Glenn noted that he had rejected a Keating fund-raising offer once he learned that Lincoln was under criminal investigation. But it was Cranston who offered the defense that could be most effective with his colleagues. If what the five had done was wrong, Cranston warned, “you better run for cover, because every Senator has done it.” If true, that was a powerful argument for reform.

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