For the second time in two years, the House ethics committee yesterday found Rep. Chalres H. Wilson (D-Calif.) guilty of financial misconduct.
After several hours of deliberation, a committee official announced that members had voted to sustain eight of the 15 counts in the latest charges against the nine-team congressman.
Three of the counts covered $10,500 in gifts he took in the early 1970s from Lee Rogers, a California businessman who, according to the charges, had a "direct interest in legislation before the Congress." Acceptance of such gifts is a violation of House rules. The other five counts charged that Wilson converted nearly $25,000 in campaign funds to his personal use. That is a violation of House rules, too.
The committee's findings, together with a penalty it will propose next week, will now be sent to the full House for a final vote. Punishment couldrange from a reprimand to censure to expulsion.
In a statement, Wilson's attorney, Walter Bonner, said the congressman was "deeply disappointed" by the findings on the eight counts and intends to carry his case to the full House. Bonner noted that Wilson had been acquitted on all charges of being influenced in his duties as a congressman, and said that no "one count deals with a criminal violation of the law."
Bonner also said he will seek to go to the House floor during the debates on penalties to argue that the remaining counts be dismissed because they are all at least seven years old, the basic time frame for statutes of limitations.
Bonner also criticized, as he has throughout the disciplinary hearing, the committee's procedures. He complained because the committee acts as grand jury to bring the charge, then as a jury to reach a verdict and finally as a judge to recommend a punishment.
The committee rejected three counts about other alleged campaign fund conversions, one of making a false statement, one about another "loan" from Rogers, and two that alleged that Wilson hired Rogers as a congressional staff member and paid him more than his duties called for.
The committee members also rejected an argument by staff counsel Steve Wisebram that Rogers' gifts to Wilson influenced the congressman's legislative acts.
One member said after the deliberation that the evidence wasn't considered conclusive enough on the seven rejected counts because it did not show direct enough links between the money from Rogers or the campaign accounts to Wilson.
Another member said some counts were dropped because members wanted to make as strong a case as possible to present to the House. "We felt we had some very substantial instances of wrongdoing in the eight counts we sustained," this member said.
Wilson was reprimanded by the House in the fall of 1978 after the committee -- known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct -- concluded that he had made false statements about taking cash from South Korean businessman Tongsun Park.
The latest charges against Wilson, who is facing a tough reelection fight in the June 3 California primary, grew out of evidence gathered in the Korean investigation. A committee staff accountant testified on March 31 that he had found $200,000 in unexplained cash in Wilson's bank accounts during that inquiry.
In their findings yesterday, committee members sustained the charges that the committee staff had documented with a paper trail of bank checks and deposits showing Wilson diverting money from his campaign fund to his personal accounts to cover the exact amounts of overdue bank loans with interest.
In his closing argument yesterday morning, committee counsel Wisebram said Wilson had "humiliated and disgraced this body." He said the American taxpayers were the losers in the relationship between Wilson and Rogers because "they underwrote a four-year ego for Rogers, who was paid $47,000 over 3 1/2 years in the mid-1970s." Wisebram said the committee should not be mislead by what he termed Bonner's "legal theatrics, staged emotionalism and hollow threats."
In his argument, Bonner made an emotional plea for the committee to restore Wilson's "good name," and threatened to go to the full House and the federal courts if necessary to clear his client.
Bonner spoke at times with his hand on Wilson's shoulder, and there was a sneer in his voice at times as he attacked the evidence against Wilson. "Can anyone be serious about this on such a record?" he asked after reading portions of the hearing transcript, which, he said, contradicted charges that Wilson was influenced by Rogers' gifts.
Co-counsel Thomas Guidoboni argued that the campaign conversations should be dismissed because they were actually reimbursements for expenses. He said it was unfair for Wilson to have to document expenses several years after they were paid.