Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch testified yesterday there is "absolutely not" a connection between the endorsement of President Carter by his New York Post and a low-interest loan from a federal agency to an airline he owns.
"There is no conflict of interest here unless it is in the eye of the beholder," Murdoch told the Senate Banking Committee, which is investigating possible political influence in granting the loan.
Murdoch, however, "expressed regret" that he met with John Moore, chairman of the Export-Import Bank, to discuss the loan of the same day that Murdock had a private lunch at the White House with President Carter. t
Murdoch said he met with Moore at the urging of executives of Boeing Co., who were trying to sell Boeing 767 jetliners to Murdoch's Ansett Transportation Industries and needed Ex-Im Bank financing for the deal.
"On reflection, I'm sorry I agreed to do that," said Murdoch. "As far as I am concerned there was no conflict if interest because I was getting no favor from the Ex-Im Bank."
In his clipped Australian accent, Murdoch testified he never discussed the loan with the president, but did tell Carter the New York Post planned to endorse him in the New York presidential primary.
At yesterday's hearings, Carter reelection campaign manager Tim Kraft, presidential emissary Robert Strauss, ambassador to Australia Philip Alston Jr., Moore and other administration officials all denied any political influence on Murdoch's loan application.
Acknowledging, "we have no indication" of any wrongdoing in connection with the loan, Banking Committee Chairman Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) said he nonetheless is concerned about "a series of coincidences."
Murdoch met with Moore and Carter on the same day, Feb. 19, Proxmire noted. Three days later, Murdoch's Post endorsed the president, and six days after that the politically appointed Ex-Im Bank chairman approved Murdoch's loan.
The loan was speeded through the bank's approval process at Moore's urging, the Banking Committee's hearings disclosed. The loan required Murdoch to pay only 8.1 percent interest, less than the Ex-Im charged other foreign airlines buying American planes last year and far less than prevailing interest charges of commercial banks.
Sen. Donald Riegle (D.-Mich.) charged that the low interest rate amounts to a $3 million subsidy from the taxpayers to Murdoch.
Murdoch testified that the 8 percent interest rate was essential to keep Boeing's aircraft deal competitive with a rival offer from Airbus Industrie, the European concern that was also trying to sell him planes.
Murdoch testified that he personally favored buying Boeing planes, but was offered financing at 7.95 percent on the Airbus. "I'm convinced I could not have sold it (the choice of Boeing) to my board of directors at anything more than 8 percent," said Murdoch, who with a partner owns all the stock of Ansett.
Strauss told the committee he had nothing to do with the loan and said Murdoch "wouldn't know me from a load of coal cars" if they met on the street. m
Kraft said he and Carter's New York campaign coordinator, Joel McCleary, started trying last summer to arrange an invitation to the White House. After two earlier dates were cancelled Murdoch got the February 19 lunch.
Murdoch said he asked to meet Moore that day because he was going to be in Washington anyway. He said he never mentioned the meeting with Moore or the loan application to Carter and never even told the president he owned an airline.
Ambassador Alston said he urged the Ex-Im Bank act quickly on the loan to be sure Boeing wouldn't lose the contract. Alston and Ex-Im Chairman Moore are former law partners; Alston said he "practically raised" Moore and is godfather to one of his sons.