IT MAY STILL be too early, as some have claimed, to recommend specific changes in the criminal provisions of the Ethics in Government Act. Their efficiency and effectiveness have not yet been fully tested. But the experience that Hamilton Jordan, the president's White House chief of staff, is now going through indicates the day for legislative change is not far away. There is, so far, much stronger public evidence here of abuse of the law than of drug abuse.
Mr. Jordan is the subject of a full FBI investigation because two men charged with federal tax evasion have asserted he used cocaine during a visit to a trendy New York disco some time last year. Neither the act -- if he committed it, and he denies that vigorously -- nor the source of the charge would be sufficient, under normal circumstances, to trigger a major criminal investigation. But the Ethics in Government Act requires just that in response to any allegation that a high federal government official has violated any federal criminal statute. To make matters worse, unless the Attroney General can rule within 90 days that the charge is frivolous, he must ask a special court to appoint a Special Prosecutor, no less, to complete the investigation.
This procedure was designed by Congress to head off any future Watergate-type coverup. It was never intended -- and should not have been -- for use in this kind of situation. The crime that is said to have been committed is a misdemeanor that federal law-enforcement officials seldom prosecute and even less often investigate. Such matters are usually left to state and local officials. And the way the allegation has arisen -- during pretrail discussions by federal officers with two men who are in serious trouble -- raises substantial questions about its credibility. It would be absurd, not to mention demeaning to the spirit of the Ethics in Government Act, to have a Special Prosecutor appointed to investigate a matter of so little moment in the elimination of corruption in government -- which was that act's primary goal.
Mr. Jordan in the past has been involved in plenty of escapades in which he was criticized for personal conduct regarded as unseemly in a high White House official. In most instances, he has accepted at least partial responsibility for what happened, along with the damage to his reputation, and he has done so without fervent protest. That needs to be kept in mind in view of the vigor with which the White House and Mr. Jordan's close associates are disputing the truthfulness of this new allegation.
The potential problems that this situation has revealed do not end with Mr. Jordan. Long before this allegation was made, high officials of the Department of Justice expressed their concern that a political opponent of a federal officeholder would use the automatic provisions of this act to inflict severe damage during a political campaign. It might be relatively easy to make an allegation that could not be judged frivolous within 90 days so that a Special Prosecutor would be appointed automatically just before an election. This aspect of the law's triggering devices, as well as its application to allegations that have nothing to do with the honesty of a government official, are matters that Congress is going to have to reconsider sooner or later. If any public benefit results from Mr. Jordan's current difficulty, it is likely to lie in getting that reconsideration under way before an even more serious abuse of the Ethics in Government Act occurs.