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Ethics Panel Can Learn From Reno

Sat., May 20, 1995

Money, sex and power are the nexus of Washington scandals.

You can trace most politicians’ corruptions to bank or boudoir. Old plot, new characters.

Bob Packwood liked women a little too much.

Ron Brown liked quick-buck schemes too avidly.

Their addictions - for flesh and cash - should now put them in the public dock.

Sen. Packwood, Republican Lothario, carried his crusade for women’s rights too far. He thought it included his right to grope, smooch and fondle anything in skirts.

Brown, Democratic rainmaker, apparently tuned up to be Bill Clinton’s commerce secretary by hiding his quick-buck deals. He liked commerce in the fast lane.

But the contrasting speeds with which these two scandals grind through legal mills teach a lesson: If you’re going to sin, first get elected to the U.S. Senate. By the time you’re caught, investigated and judged by a panel of Senate peers, eons will pass. You’ll be a respected geezer, misdeeds semiforgotten.

Watching the Senate club bring its own members to justice is like watching the Grand Canyon erode. The Senate Ethics Committee makes an earthworm look zippy.

Consider the leisurely pace at which the Packwood case has been stonewalled in the Senate.

Charges that he harassed women surfaced in Oregon during his 1992 re-election. At first the soap opera was noisy. Packwood argued his innocence on the Senate floor. He balked at homestate calls to resign. To Barbara Walters on TV, he apologized (sort of) for his misbehavior, blaming booze. His grope-and-tell diaries caused a legal tangle.

Then, snoring silence.

Republicans won the Senate and Bob Packwood was transformed into esteemed chairman of the Finance Committee. Instead of a haggard, guiltridden sexual predator, Packwood became a powerhouse, pontificating on TV news shows.

Could this Saint Bob be the same Bob the Goat, a clumsy Casanova who allegedly molested 17 women, including Senate staffers, a dining room hostess, baby sitter, campaign worker and Capitol Hill elevator operator?

Scandal? What scandal?

Sluggish as growing grass, the Ethics Committee mulled the raps against Packwood for two years, four months. Finally it has decided there’s “substantial credible evidence of improper conduct.”

Twenty-eight months? Even the Simpson trial won’t take that long.

What took Packwood’s peers so long?

After all, the ethics panel had 18 graphic stories of Packwood’s lust-and-grab fever in offices, restaurants, hotels and even an elevator.

Gina Hutton, a campaign volunteer, testified that Packwood pulled her to him, put his arms around her, kissed her, forcing his tongue in her mouth, then invited her to his hotel room.

In another tale of Bob the Goat, Packwood “grabbed a elevator operator by the shoulders, pushed her to the wall of the elevator, kissed her on the lips; later he came to her home, kissed her and asked to make love.”

Yet the ethics panel members - three Republicans and three Democrats, including Barbara Mikulski of Maryland - were as paralyzed as wax museum figures.

New chairman Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agonized over his first scandal. Nailing Packwood would be tricky. Could Republicans tarnish their own finance boss, bustling over welfare, Medicare and the budget?

And Saint Bob’s friend was Senate leader Bob Dole, cozy enough to give to his legal defense.

At last, pressure and an impatient Mikulski forced the Senate’s good ol’ boy network to stop cushioning Packwood.

Some day Packwood will face his accusers, possibly before TV cameras.

Who knows, Packwood’s saga - Saint or Old Goat? - may reach a verdict in this century. By then, even the O.J. jury will fade into memory.

For contrast, let’s cheer Janet Reno, an attorney general who doesn’t mess around with sinners. Even if they’re her boss’s White House pals.

Face it, Bill Clinton blundered in naming Ron Brown as commerce secretary, a payoff for Brown’s 1992 campaign help. Everyone knew Brown was a fast-buck lobbyist and deal-maker. Rumors escalated that Brown was cutting corners, including one aromatic $500,000 scheme.

Bang, Reno dropped the hammer, calling for a special prosecutor to probe the commerce secretary’s shadowy finances.

I’ve been critical of Reno’s role in the flaming fiasco at Waco, Texas. And, sure, you can say the law and Republican heat made her lower the boom on Ron Brown. But Reno has been as brisk asking for special prospectors to check into exAgriculture Secretary Mike Espy’s gifts and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros’ payments to his former mistress.

Her let-the-chips-fall independence may get freezing snubs at the White House. Reno’s toughcop attitude toward Clinton’s buddies fuels his Whitewater trouble.

But in a Washington cesspool of lust, money and power, Janet Reno shines like a Statue of Liberty.

The lady cop has guts.


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