Former congressman Otto E. Passman (D-La.) once said that he didn't smoke and he didn't drink. His only pleasure, he added, was "kicking the-hell out of the United States foreign aid program."
It was a pleasure that he indulged in relentlessly during the 21 years that he chaired the House subcommittee overseeing foreign aid spending. Passman mastered the tecnicalities of every program, and prided himself on his skill at "removing the fat."
Yesterday Passman was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of defrauding the U.S. government. And the charges grew out of accusations that he had used his influence to pressure one country, South Korea, into accepting more aid than it had asked for.
The indictment charged that Passman, as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, pressured South Korean officials to buy U.S. rice, then persuaded the U.S. government to finance the sales with Food for Peace credits. According to the indictment, the broker for these transactions, Korean businessman Tongsum Park, gave Passman thousands of dollars for his intervention.
It was a strange turn in the career of man who had built a mighty, one-man power base in Congress with his stands against waste and inefficiency in the distribution of the taxpayers' money abroad.
It was Passman's cost-cutting, together with his eccentric antics at home and abroad, that made him a feared figure at home and abroad, that made him a feared figure in the executive branch of government, where foreign aid proposals originate.
Passman became chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee in 1955, but it was not until 1964 that the full Appropriations Committee finally refused to sustain some of his cuts. That brought an outburst from Passman that "the president of the United States [Lyndon B. Jonhson] had worked tricks you could't see in a circus."
In the Johnson years, Passman's influence diminished as he also fought with the White House over civil rights. From his 1947 vote against a bill banning the poll tax, to his 1975 vote against a measure to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Passman opposed civil rights, measures. But after 1969, when then-president Nixon sought and won Passman's support for the administration's policy in South-east Asia, Passman's influence grew again.
The chairman's favorite targets were the Peace Corps, the Agency for International Development and international organizations that extend credits to poor countries. The agencies, he said, were created by "tens of thousands of fat cats, drawing bug salaries, flying all over the world . . . ."
Witnesses who testified before him often were confronted with what came jokingly to be called the "Passman dance" - so called because of the chairman's fidgeting and gesturing while he was delivering rambling soliloquies about waste in foreign aid.
AID officials learned to be prepared for the unexpected.
At a hearing in 1975 on the U.S. government's program to help countries abroad reduce their populations, AID officials came ready to discuss the broad outlines of the program, but ended up defending the agency's contractual arrangements with West German prophylactic manufacturers.
"I'm trying to make a pitch to bring this volume of business back home," Passman said. The witness replied, "The demand exceeds the U.S. productive capcaity."
It was exchanges such as that that led critics to say that the chairman understood the details, but not the rationale behind foreign aid.
It was Passman's foreign expertise and influence that resulted in his becoming a promoter of American rice sales abroad in 1971. According to Passman, he did this at the behest of fellow Louisiana Democrat, Rep. Edwin W. Edwards, then running for governor.
At the time, there was a large surplus of unsold rice in Edwars's home district in southern Louisiana. Passman and Edwards went to Seoul in late 1971. A U.S. AID official said later that the gist of Passman's talks with the Korean government were: "You get a request for credit in, and we'll take care of the financing."
Passman subsequently took credit for getting the South Korean government to switch its purchases from Japanese to American rice.
Soon after that visit, in 1972, AID lent South Korea $60 million at low interest and long repayment terms to buy U.S. rice, and the Louisiana surplus dwindled.
Of his relationship with Park, Passman said that the Korean had been in his office on a number of occasions, but not at Passman's initiative.
"If I go to Sunday school, I see Mr. Park - wherever I go, I see Mr. Park," Passman said. Passman said that he-had turned down the Korean's offer of an expensive watch for the congressman's collection.
After 1971, however, Passman intervened several times in government financed rice sales.
In 1975, Passman took the side of California merchants and shippers in a dispute with Louisiana rice interests over a U.S. financed rice shipment to Bangladesh. Passman said earlier that the president of the company seeking to ship the California rice was a friend.This same company had in the past used Park as agent in rice business.