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How Ethical is the Bush Administration Anyway?

5 minute read
Viveca Novak

For an administration that likes to quote Scripture, the situation is fittingly biblical — an eye for an eye, do unto others, that sort of thing. The issue is Democrats raising ethical questions about key members of the Bush Administration, something that was rampant when the parties were flipped during the Clinton era.

Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who plays foil to House Government Reform Committee Chairman and Clinton Administration Inquisitor Dan Burton, R- Ind., has asked Burton several times if he’ll spearhead an investigation into alleged Republican wrongdoing — specifically, the situation of senior Bush adviser Karl Rove, who met March 12 with Intel’s chief executive and two of its lobbyists even as he still held more than $100,000 in company stock. Rove has denied any impropriety, with White House officials saying that the conversation was about how the company could support the president’s policies, not about a pending merger (others don’t remember it quite that way). Until June 7, Rove also held more than $100,000 in Enron stock; during that time he had conversations with the energy giant’s CEO, Kenneth Lay, about energy policy. His holdings in some other companies that care about the administration’s views were even larger.

Dems are also calling attention to former Alcoa chairman Paul O’Neill, who, in his new job as Treasury Secretary, has an indisputable ability to influence the ups and downs of the market. He didn’t finish selling off his more than $100 million in stock and options until this week, though he promised to do so three months ago after being shamed into it. In the interim, the stock spiked upward — O’Neill made an extra 30% by holding on so long, according to market analysts quoted on Salon.com, who said the increase was largely as a result of the administration’s energy policies.

A spokesman for Burton said Wednesday that no investigation or hearings are planned. And the White House is refusing, for the most part, to cooperate with a General Accounting Office investigation, requested by Democrats, of the operations of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. In fact, much tongue-clucking has ensued over at the White House. “We understand that there have been past, partisan battles over investigations, but these were battles and investigations this president and this administration were not involved in — this president was off in Texas being governor,” Bush aide Dan Bartlett told the Washington Post.

But that belies two facts. One, the Bush Administration has actually rewarded some of those who doggedly pursued alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton crew with prominent administration jobs. And two, Burton himself is still investigating Clinton-connected events, six months after the man himself rode out of town.

The plum job of top dog in the Justice Department’s criminal division has gone to Michael Chertoff, a former U.S. Attorney who served as GOP Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s chief counsel in his Whitewater investigation. Ted Olson is now solicitor general, having spent part of the last 8 years helping out with the American Spectator’s zealous prosecution of Bill Clinton —even as his wife, Barbara Olson, who used to work for Dan Burton, appeared on a fleet of TV talk shows defending Ken Starr’s investigation of Clinton. Brett Kavanaugh, who used to work on Starr’s independent counsel probe, is now ensconced in the White House counsel’s office. And Tim Griffin, a former Burton investigator, has been operating in a sort of free-floating capacity in DOJ’s criminal division since long before Chertoff joined up.

Most, if not all, of these individuals are smart and well-credentialed. But their placement within the administration doesn’t exactly support Bush’s theme of changing the tone in Washington.

Then there’s Burton himself. He continues to pursue the matter of Clinton’s 11th-hour pardons, and maybe he should — even though there’s a serious grand jury probe already being run out of the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. But last Friday he called a hearing on a nine-year-old Florida case involving a former local official who says he was abused by investigators working for Janet Reno, then the chief prosecutor of Miami-Dade County. The alleged victim fled to Australia after being cited for contempt of court, maybe because his car theft report wasn’t what he’d claimed and there was a lot more sex (for hire) and drugs involved than he’d intended to reveal. Burton’s staff wrote its report on the case before the hearing, without talking to key investigators. Why was Burton digging into this bizarre, ancient state-level case? Skeptics have one answer: Reno is considering running for governor against Jeb Bush in 2002.

What the Democrats want to know about Rove, O’Neill and Cheney’s task force is at least more current, and in fact involves policy and how it’s getting made. In Rove and O’Neill’s favor, of course, is that there’s no evidence they took any action in order to boost the price-per-share of companies in which they had holdings.

But they’re in the awkward position of having to prove a negative: Can they show that they haven’t done anything that has personally enriched them via the stock market? No, because nobody could. That’s why Bush’s statement on his first day in office was exactly right: He said he expected members of his administration to act legally and ethically, adding “This means avoiding even the appearance of problems.” If he meant it, he needs to enforce it.

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