IF YOU DON'T LIVE in Richmond (where the Times-Dispatch put the story on the front page) you probably don't know about Dennis E. LeBlanc, who earns $58,500 of your tax dollars each year for official duties that include chopping wood and sweeping out the barn at President Reagan's ranch.
Improbable? Not in this administration.
LeBlanc is a former California highway patrolman who served on Gov. Reagan's security detail in Sacramento, and later worked for Ronald Reagan, private citizen, handling affairs at his ranch. He came to Washington with President-elect Reagan, worked in the White House's office of special support services, then last June moved over to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. LeBlanc became "associate administrator for policy analysis and development," a top- level job that pays $58,500.
LeBlanc spent two of his first five months on this job in Santa Barbara, at the Reagan ranch, cutting wood, cleaning stables, building fences and "coordinating" the work of Secret Service security and communications personnel on the ranch, whose facilities LeBlanc helped build in his earlier, White House job.
"I feel perfectly at ease with it," LeBlanc said on the phone last week. "I look at it as just a detailee to the White House." Lots of government officials get detailed to the White House, he added.
Earlier, LeBlanc told John Hall of the Media General news service in an interview published in Richmond: "Chopping wood may seem like a vacation to some people. But the total amount of time I spend during a year is considerable."
What about the time away from telecommunications policy analysis? "This is not a day-to-day hotbed of activity," LeBlanc told Hall, speaking of the telecommunications office at Commerce. "I do call in and find out how things are going."
Obviously, LeBlanc is a crony of the president's; Reagan likes to have his company when he is out chopping brush on the ranch. But he is a crony earning top dollar on the peoples' payroll.
In other times, an arrangement like this might have been called a scandal. But in Ronald Reagan's Washington, it gets a shrug.
To some extent Richard Nixon deserves the credit for this. One of Nixon's most baleful legacies to his countrymen was the "I-am- not-a-crook" plea. Somehow Nixon managed to establish the idea that if a public figure can stay out of the pokey, everything else is okay.
But could Nixon have stood before any audience and said, with a straight face, "I am not a sleazy, conniving rogue?" Probably not. He wanted the world not to care about that sort of thing, and to an incredible degree he got what he wanted. Americans no longer seem capable of outrage at behavior that is simply improper or dubious. We seem to demand the smoking gun -- as in the case of Labor Secretary Donovan -- that will put a fellow in the clink before we'll get mad.
Well, that's a theory, anyhow. You need some kind of theory to explain the apparent public indifference to the cases of embarrassing behavior in the Reagan administration. These are not "cases" in the police-blotter sense; none of the embarrassed members of this administration has been charged with a crime -- not Richard V. Allen, or William J. Casey, or Raymond J. Donovan, or Max Hugel, or William French Smith, or James G. Watt, or Robert P. Nimmo, or Nancy Harvey Steorts, or William F. Harvey, or Donald Bogard, or Frederic N. Andre, or Thomas C. Reed, or John F. Lehman, or any of the others. No, these cases raise questions about other kinds of abuses -- greed, corner-cutting, or cynical misuses of power. Many of these cases suggest a willingness to treat the federal government like one's own private corporation. They are "cases" in a political sense -- cases of people in high position who have engaged in behavior that raises doubt about whether they deserve high position.
It isn't easy to read the long newspaper articles that describe instances of questionable behavior by high officials. They are detailed, complex and written under the eye of lawyers who rarely help clarify a story. It is harder still to remember the details of particular cases, especially after some Senate committee or the Justice Department has concluded that the person in question is not guilty of any crime, or "not unfit to hold office," in the felicitous phrase the Senate Intelligence Committee found to express its confidence in Casey, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
But rereading earlier stories about all of these individuals now, and doing it all at one sitting, creates a powerful impression. What follows is a selective review of some high points of the record up to now:
William J. Casey. Casey, who helped run Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign, sought to become his secretary of state and settled for CIA director, has had a long career as a businessman and lawyer that has involved numerous lawsuits and a series of confirmation fights when he was appointed to high office in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. A thorough review of Casey's past would fill the Outlook section. Two instances, neither very well publicized, raise relevant questions about Casey.
The first is an old story -- 23 years old. Here is how the Associated Press has told it:
"A plagiarism suit brought by Harry Fields in 1959 contend(ed)that a tax booklet edited by Casey had used, without authorization, 2 1/2 pages of a manuscript that Fields had written on employee benefit plans.
"According to court records, Fields gave Casey the manuscript to relay it to a New York publishing house, but Casey first showed it to one of his assistants who was editing an article for Casey's tax booklet on the same subject. Casey said he was unaware the assistant had copied the manuscript and used a portion of in in the booklet.
"A jury awarded Fields damages of $40,425, including $12,850 in punitive damages from Casey. Subsequently, Fields agreed to accept an immediate payment of $20,500 and to allow the verdict to be expunged from the record and to have the transcript sealed.
"In 1971, Casey told the Senate Banking Committee the settlement came about after the case judge, J. Braxton Craven, told attorneys that the verdict was not supported by evidence and that he intended to set it aside.
"However, when Judge Craven was asked about Casey's claim, he denied making such a statement and told the committee that on the contrary, he felt the jury's verdict was 'amply' supported by the evidence."
A second item is just six months old. The Associated Press again tells the story:
"The CIA has established a 'screening arrangement' to keep tabs on Director William J. Casey's stock transactions and prevent him from official steps that would enhance his holdings.
"The new system still allows Casey to buy or sell stocks at his discretion.
"CIA officials said the new arrangement took effect May 28, (1982), after Casey reported selling more than $600,000 in oil stocks in 1981, a year oil stock prices plummeted in response to a worldwide glut.
"The CIA director is among a handful of top officials with broad access to U.S. intelligence information, including secret estimates of world oil supplies. Casey is the only senior Reagan administration official with such access who neither set up a blind trust nor divested some of his holdings before taking office. .. ."
Max Hugel should follow Casey, because they have been friends for more than 20 years, and because Casey (over the objections of others in the White House and the CIA) gave Hugel one of the most sensitive jobs in the intelligence agency, chief of its clandestine operations.
Hugel only held that job for a few months -- until The Washington Post reported allegations against him by two brothers who had once been Hugel's business associates. The brothers had made tape recordings that appeared to show Hugel engaging in blatantly improper stock dealings with them. Hugel proclaimed his innocence (he has since filed a libel suit against the two brothers). When he heard the tape recordings he said he recognized his voice, but didn't know what to make of the conversations he was hearing.
Among the things the tapes recorded was Hugel telling one of the two brothers: "If you do (what I ask), I'll kiss you on both cheeks. And if you don't, I'll cut your (obscenity) off. You got no choice anyway. I'll get my Korean gang after you and you don't look so good when you're hanging by the (obscenity) anyway." Hours after The Post's revelations hit the street, Hugel resigned from the CIA.
One has to wonder how the head of the CIA could turn to a man like Hugel to run the agency's most sensitive, dangerous operations. Hugel had no experience in intelligence, no experience in foreign policy, no experience in government, and no expertise on international affairs. His decision to give Hugel this job, Casey said later, was "a mistake" for which he took "full responsibility." However, it was Hugel who resigned; Casey is still on the job.
William French Smith. On Dec. 11, 1980, Ronald Reagan announced his intention to make his longtime personal lawyer, Smith, the attorney general. Twenty days later -- more precisely, just eight hours before the end of the 1980 tax year -- Smith invested $16,500 in an oil and gas tax shelter from which he would claim $66,000 in tax deductions. In other words, Smith claimed $4 in tax writeoffs for every $1 in cash he invested, or at least twice as much as the Internal Revenue Service (whose "lawyer" Smith was about to become in his new job) then regarded as permissible, as the attorneys for Smith's tax shelter deal knew. They advised the investors that the deduction was adventurous, and said an IRS audit could be expected.
Thirteen days later, on Jan. 13, 1981, the Earle M. Jorgenson Co. -- headed by Jorgenson, who, like Smith, was a member of Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" -- said farewell to their board member, the new attorney general-designate, with a golden handshake. The Jorgenson board made Smith a "severance payment" of $50,000, which was more than Smith had earned in all the six years he had served on Jorgensen's board and the three years he had been on its audit committee. A company spokesman said this was the first such cash severance payment ever made to a Jorgenson director.
Had Smith inquired at his new place of employment, the Justice Department, he would have learned that in earlier cases, the department had ruled that incoming government officials could not accept such severance payments. But Smith did not inquire; he just took the money.
Stories in The Post last May revealed these matters, which Smith had included in financial disclosure reports filed earlier in the spring. The newspaper stories created quite a furor, and within days Smith announced that he would limit the tax deduction he took on the oil and gas deal to the amount he actually invested, and would return the $50,000 to the Jorgenson firm.
In a public statement explaining these decisions on May 28, Smith announced: "Although I earnestly believe that none of these actions are required by propriety or law, public service often invites the use of an even stricter standard. I intend to apply the strictest of standards."
Richard V. Allen. Allen's three watches and the ten $100 bills in his office safe got plenty of publicity, and led to his resignation as President Reagan's national security adviser. But in the furor over those matters, less attention was paid to a deal Allen made with Peter D. Hannaford, who bought out Allen's consulting business.
Hannaford was Michael Deaver's partner in a California public relations firm before Deaver joined the Reagan White House staff. Hannaford then moved his operations to Washington. (In the capital, Hannaford's firm apparently prospered. Public records showed Hannaford quadrupling his business as a lobbyist for domestic and foreign clients.) He also took ogaging in ver Allen's Potomac International Corp., agreeing to pay Allen $160,000 in installments for the firm's assets. Allen collected this money while serving as Reagan's NSC adviser.
But what are the assets of a consulting firm? Not much that is tangible, as the parties acknowledged. Apparently the only asset that could justify such a selling price was a list of clients that Hannaford could expect to retain. But why would a client who signed on with Allen -- purportedly an expert on international security and trade issues -- stick with a firm now run by a California P.R. man?
A White House report on the Allen affair released last January included this paragraph:
"Mr. Allen continued to have contacts with former clients of Potomac (his old firm, now owned by Hannaford) after Jan. 21. 1981 (inauguration day). These included 'social' or 'courtesy' meetings at the White House, as well as luncheons and dinners at which a former client may have paid for Mr. Allen's meal. Some of the luncheons were hosted by Mr. Allen at the White House staff mess. Both Mr. Allen and his former clients indicate that no 'business' was discussed at these meetings, lunches, or dinners. The circumstances, including the reciprocal nature of the entertainment and the long friendship beteen Mr. Allen and these individuals support the conclusion that personal friendship was the motivating factor for the contact. Mr. Allen had no contacts with clients of the Hannaford company."
Nancy Harvey Steorts. Steorts, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, ordered renovations to her office soon after she moved in. She had $10,000 spent on carpets, curtains and new paint, and on a new office entryway so she would have her own private reception area instead of sharing one with another commission member.
Soon after taking office, Steorts instructed the mailroom clerk who also served as her chauffeur to wear a uniform and hat whenever he drove her official car. Agency lawyers told her she could not give such an order, so she modified it, telling her driver to wear a suit. The clerk, a GS-4 earning less than $14,000 a year, said he didn't own a suit and couldn't afford to buy one. But agency accountants said government funds could not be used for a suit. In the end, two agency officials chipped in to buy the man a suit to protect his job.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Steorts used her car to go to lunch at the Mayflower Hotel, two blocks from her office, and also had her driver take her college-age daughter to visit friends.
Robert P. Nimmo. A protege of Edwin Meese III in the White House, Nimmo is a former California state legislator whom President Reagan named to run the Veterans' Administration. Nimmo spent $54,183 redecorating his office (he sent the old furniture to the office of Mary Nimmo, a spokesman for the Commerce Department who is his daughter). He also leased a big Buick as his official car, though the rules said he should have a compact model. And he used the VA's chauffeur to take him to and from work in violation of the government regulations. When this was discovered, Nimmo repaid the government $6,641 of his own money for his luxurious commute.
Last October, shortly before the GAO was expected to release a report criticizing Nimmo for misusing chartered military aircraft and first-class air travel and for misusing his government chauffeur, Nimmo resigned.
William F. Harvey. The temporary chairman of the board of the Legal Services Corp. -- his appointment lapsed when Congress adjourned -- collected $25,028 in consulting fees from the government during the first 11 months of 1982. This, of course, got a lot of publicity, but the details of what Harvey was collecting for were buried on the inside pages.
For example, Harvey apparently disliked airplanes, so drove to Washington from his home in Indianapolis for meetings of the Legal Services board. He charged the government at the rate of $22l a day to which he was entitled for the time it took him to make this drive. Sometimes he billed a one-way ing in trip (615 miles) as two full days of consulting -- $442.
Harvey billed the government $194.22 for postal expenses in connection with a two-day board meeting at the end of October. Last May, during a five-night stay in Washington, he ran up a taxi bill of $147.05. (That would require about 70 trips within the first taxi zone, assuming he gave 20 percent tips.)
The list stops here for purely arbitrary reasons. There are many more cases of questionable behavior in this crowd, from James Watt's parties at the Custis-Lee Mansion (the Republican National Committee finally picked up the $6,517.30 tab for them) to the First Lady's acceptance of fancy clothes from American designers. That practice was dropped when the White House realized the implications of reporting gifts of clothes to Mrs. Reagan valued at thousands of dollars. Those she had accepted she gave away to museums as examples of historic creations by American couturiers.
What does this all add up to? "Ruled by shady men, a nation itself becomes shady," wrote H.L. Mencken many years ago, a nice aphorism that isn't easily digested in the real world. It doesn't seem fair to say that this crew is dramatically shadier than all of its predecessors. After all, it includes some wealthy men whose compliance with the new disclosure and conflict-of-interest regulations makes them look like paragons of upright behavior: George Shultz and George Bush are two, according to lawyers who deal with these matters.
But whatever the moral significance of all this, there are disturbing practical implications. It can only deepen the American public's cynicism about its governing institutions, and about the rules of fair play that Americans pretend to take seriously.
Eventually these embarrassments may add up to a serious political problem for Reagan. The White House is already distressed that many Americans perceive its policies as "unfair." Slippery behavior and selfishness in the upper reaches of the government cannot but make this perception sharper.
Two years ago, when the Reagan administration was taking shape, we were introduced to the "kitchen cabinet," that group of California millionaires who were Ronald Reagan's oldest backers and closest pals. These men are not big industrialists, but self-made entrepreneurs and small businessmen. They are the kind of rich Americans we associate with country clubs and conspicuous consumption.
Ed Meese, the president's counselor, may have revealed their view of the world with poetic clarity at a reporters' breakfast in Washington last May. "The progressive income tax is immoral," Meese said then. "I don't think we should penalize someone because he's successful."
In other words, wealthy men have no greater obligations to society than poorer ones; wealth is not a privilege but an entitlement. From there it is not a long jump to the conclusion that government service is a noble sacrifice whose fiscal pain should be kept to a minimum. And from there it is no jump at all -- just a hop or a skip -- to the kinds of behavior that have embarrassed the Reagan administration during its first two years in office.