MEMBERS OF THE Senate need to keep three things in mind as they consider the difficult question of what to do about Sen. Harrison Williams:
1) The senator has been convicted by a jury of serious felonies specifically involving a breach of his duty as an officeholder. In recent days, he has asserted that he "did nothing criminal," and his chief defender, Sen. Daniel Inouye, has characterized his offense as a simple mistake of judgment.
It's much more than that. The federal jury found him guilty of nine counts of conspiracy, bribery, conflict of interest and interstate travel in aid of a racketeering enterprise. He has also been charged by the Senate Ethics Committee with seven specific violations of the Senate Code of Conduct and with lying to the FBI and failing to advise it of an offer of a bribe. These are all serious offenses that cannot lightly be dismissed as simple errors of judgment.
2) Expulsion, the penalty recommended by a unanimous Ethics Committee, is an appropriate penalty for these offenses. Sen. Williams' defenders have made much of the fact that the Senate has expelled only 15 members in its history and that those were cases of disloyalty or treason. But the Ethics Committee report cites at least five cases--all more recent than the treason cases--in which expulsion was recommended for bribery. In two instances, senators were cleared of charges; in the other three cases, the senators resigned or were defeated before the full Senate voted on expulsion. This was also the penalty imposed by the House on Rep. Michael Myers, the only Abscam defendant in that body who neither resigned nor was defeated before the House could act.
3)3 Entrapment is not an appropriate defense in the Senate proceeding. Questions of procedural due process were raised, unsuccessfully, by Sen. Williams at his trial. He will undoubtedly pursue them on appeal. But whatever the outcome of that appeal-- even if his criminal conviction is eventually reversed on due process grounds--the Senate is not bound by rules governing criminal trials. The Senate has its own standards by which it must judge the conduct of its members, and a criminal conviction is not necessary to a finding that those standards have been violated. Senators have a duty to assess the evidence and decide whether they believe it. And the evidence in this case, since it consists in part of videotapes of the senator engaging in the very conduct with which he is charged, is awfully persuasive.
It is easy to understand why a senator would prefer not to make this decision. It is difficult to judge or condemn a friend and colleague. But here there really isn't room for compromise. Any resolution of the case that allows Sen. Williams to remain in the Senate, in a position of honor and trust in spite of conduct the Ethics Committee has called "ethically repugnant to the point of warranting his expulsion," will be a cop-out.