The Worst Is Probably Over For The Keating Five

While the Persian Gulf war has kept Americans glued to their TV sets, the public has all but forgotten the big televised drama of last fall: the Senate trial of the Keating Five. Public hearings have ended, and the Ethics Committee will soon render its verdict. Odds are that the five senators accused of improperly aiding former savings and loan magnate and large-scale contributor Charles H. Keating Jr. will be let off with little more than a slap on the wrist.

All five say they were just providing routine assistance to a constituent when they helped Keating with thrift regulators. The ethics panel is likely to buy that argument. Says attorney Stanley M. Brand, who has represented House members in ethics cases: "The problem I'm having is understanding what the violation is. There's no rule against taking campaign contributions from people you help."

Ethics Committee Special Counsel Robert S. Bennett says "the political heart and soul of this country" is at stake. He's urging that the committee rebuke Senators Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). But he has recommended that the cases against Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Glenn Jr. (D-Ohio) be dropped.

SPECIAL FAVORS. The committee is inclined to drop all the charges, but it can't just settle for a "go-and-sin-no-more." Lincoln's failure will cost taxpayers $2.5 billion. The public wants blood. Polls make it clear that many Americans see the affair as a case of special favors for special interests.

Trouble is, the members of the committee are taking a narrower, more legalistic view of the matter. Right now, the six members are bitterly divided. Two Democrats--Terry Sanford of North Carolina and David Pryor of Arkansas--appear ready to let their colleagues off the hook. They complained in the hearings that much of the evidence Bennett presented was irrelevant. Republicans Jesse A. Helms of North Carolina and Trent Lott of Mississippi feel just as strongly that the three should be punished. "I'm proud of you, and I think the American people are too," Helms told Bennett.

That leaves the job of forging a verdict to Chairman Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) and Vice-Chairman Warren B. Rudman (R-N. H.). Neither has tipped his hand, but both are inclined to view their jobs in a legal, rather than political, context.

Here's how it's likely to play out: Rudman, a former prosecutor, and Heflin, a one-time judge, will assess the facts in lawyerly fashion, asking if there is clear and convincing evidence that any senator helped Keating in exchange for money. With no smoking-gun evidence, the likely answer is no. Then Rudman and Heflin will ask if any senator improperly pressured regulators. Brand says the ethics panel may suggest limiting future regulatory intervention by lawmakers. But, he adds, "you can't hold people to a standard that's not clear to them at the time."

WORST CASE. In the end, all the committee may have left is a rule barring senators from accepting favors that would create the appearance of misconduct. That's a very slender rope with which to hang a man. In the worst case for the senators involved, the committee may recommend that the Senate reprimand Cranston--who has already announced that he'll retire next year--DeConcini, and Riegle.

Riegle is in the most jeopardy. He could face censure for what Bennett calls "obscuring his role," a euphemism for lying in testimony. If the panel finds Riegle was dishonest with his colleagues, they might suggest that the Senate Democrats take away his chairmanship of the Banking Committee. "It's been discussed," says one aide.

This outcome would prove deeply disappointing to the public. The best voters can hope for is that the embarrassment of the Keating Five will cause senators to think twice before going out of their way to help powerful constituents. But in Washington, alas, embarrassment rarely lasts long.

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