As a congressman, he is so strict his office staff is forbidden to use federal long distance phone lines after business hours for personal calls. he returns all gifts, no matter how small. Unlike some of his colleagues from Florida, he refuses to accept a juicer for his office. In 1975 he returned about $160,000 to the government in salary and veterans disability benefits he'd received since 1949; he said he felt patriotic and didn't need the money. A co-worker calls him "a prissy old lady."
Representative Charles Bennett, the man in line to head the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is a thirty-year veteran of the House whose concern for congressional ethics led to formation of that committee in the late Fifties. And whose squeaky-clean reputation led fellow congressmen to keep him off that committee until recently. Now, with the upcoming retirement of Chairman John Flynt and another ranking Democrat, Bennett may run the committee he helped establish in the wake of the Adam Clayton Powell affair.
"When I returned to Jacksonville from World War II," Bennett recalls, "a friend whose father had served in the state legislature with me, and who had died while I was away, said, 'You two were very highly ethical people. My dad would never take any money for voting against a bill unless he was already opposed to it.'"
That observation shocked young Bennett, who had decided on a life in politics in high school because "I thought people yearned to see courageous people in public government." Today he says exposure to a corrupt city administration in his hometown of Jacksonville and a handshake with Woodrow Wilson at the White House (when Bennett was seven) helped shape his moralistic approach to government. Shortly after his return from war, and crippled by polio he had contracted in the Pacific, Bennett won a seat in the House, where he has stayed ever since.
When the Sherman Adams affair darkened the door of the Eisenhower White House, bennett thought specific standards of conduct for government officials might prevent future abuses; in 1976 Robert Sikes (D-Fla.) was reprimanded by the House for financial misconduct under the rules formulated years earlier by Bennett.
The Sikes affair marked the first time the House had punished a member since 1969, when Adam Clayton Powell was censured. As a result of the Powell scandal, Bennett fashioned a modest ethics committee, using his own office employees as staff. (One who spoke against the formation of that committee: Wayne Hays, a young congressman from Ohio.) But some of Bennett's views were unappreciated, such as his opinion that lawyers in Congress should not be allowed to practice law. Bennett was not elected back to the committee until the maverick freshman class of 1974 placed him aboard.
"People aren't willing to enact ethical improvements except when they have a specific example of impropriety brought to their attention," says Bennett, who seems sanguine about the years he watched from the sidelines as others ran the House ethics committee.
If he becomes chairman as expected early next year, Bennett would like to remove the prosecutorial function from the committee members.
"We're the prosecutor, grand jury and judge," he complains, arguing that the triple role is unfair. And he abhors leaks: "It's repulsive to me to have a 'judge' interviewed by the press as to how the evidence is going on the person you're trying, which is also a reason to get rid of the prosecutorial aspect."
Bennett expects the conclusion of the ethics committee's current hot topic, Korea-gate, will disappoint a public looking for sensational revelations.
"If the press overstates the case, the public perceives the committee as foot-dragging," says Bennett, who says a reported list of 100 congressmen's names once taken from Tongsun Park "was supposed to be a bribe target list." In fact, says Bennett, the list included several categories of names: some who were simply "interested in the free world, some who were sympathetic toward Asia and some sympathetic toward South Korea - which is a far cry from a list of bribes."
Bennett predicts fewer than ten congressmen - and maybe only five or six - will be reprimanded for taking favors from South Korean intersts.
Footnote: When Bennett arrived in Congress he was emaciated from his bout with polio and a doctor said he'd never walk. So Bennett, who still wears leg braces when he walks, began establishing a perfect record of attendance at votes and, until he missed a vote for adjournment by mistake several years ago, he held the record for not missing a vote in over two decades. "Now," says Bennett, "I rephrase that to say I haven't missed any legislative votes in twenty-six years."