Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese III told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that he did not violate federal ethics standards at any time in his career, including rules that government officials avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"I honestly believe that to an objective person I did not create such an appearance" of conflict of interest, Meese told senators at his confirmation hearings. "But I would try to avoid such circumstances in the future." Later, he added that he now had more experience in Washington and "probably would do things differently."
In an attempt to avoid apparent conflicts in the future, Meese said, he would rely on Justice Department lawyers for advice on ethical matters, including when to recuse or disqualify himself from discussions and decisions in which he might have a conflict of interest.
"I would consult with the office of legal policy in the Department of Justice about financial matters so they would advise me about any potential matters of conflicts of interest," the presidential counselor said. "They would tell me when to recuse myself."
Nearly all Republicans on the 17-member Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Strom Thurmond (S.C.), voiced strong support for Meese in opening statements and throughout their questioning of him yesterday. Democrats voiced concerns about Meese's ethics but in most cases did not say how they will vote on the nomination. The panel is expected to vote later this week.
When Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) indicated that he will vote against recommending Senate confirmation of Meese, Thurmond rebuked him, saying he hoped Metzenbaum and other senators would "reserve judgment until after the hearings" -- this despite the fact that Thurmond previously had announced that he will vote for Meese.
Meese, 53, was nominated for the Cabinet post last year, but the nomination ran into trouble over his financial dealings. An independent counsel, Jacob A. Stein, investigated the matter and cleared Meese of violating the law. President Reagan resubmitted Meese's nomination to the new Congress this year.
A recurring issue at yesterday's hearing was a report by staff attorneys for the Office of Government Ethics concluding that Meese "probably" had violated federal ethical standards. Meese denied this.
In the report, a copy of which was released yesterday, ethics office attorneys F. Gary Davis and Nancy Feathers concluded that Meese probably violated the standards by failing to recuse himself from a meeting where his accountant, John R. McKean, was approved for a seat on the U.S. Postal Board of Governors. McKean previously arranged two loans for Meese totaling $60,000.
The lawyers also concluded that Meese probably violated an ethics rule prohibiting officials from receiving gifts from subordinates because McKean forgave Meese's interest payments on the loans for a time.
Finally, the lawyers said in their report, Meese did not recuse himself from a meeting at which a friend, Thomas J. Barrack Jr., who had helped with the sale of Meese's house in La Mesa, Calif., was approved for a high-level Interior Department job.
As a result, the lawyers said, Meese may have violated a rule prohibiting government employes from engaging in activities that might create the appearance of giving preferential treatment.
The lawyers' 16-page report, which was based on an examination of Stein's findings, was not acted on by their superior, David H. Martin. Instead, Martin wrote the Senate that no ethical violations had occurred.
Martin acted after conferring with White House counsel Fred F. Fielding and Meese attorney Leonard Garment, who told Martin of a factual error in the lawyers' report and "presented information that corrected misconstructions that had occurred," Meese said yesterday.
Meese, who said that he asked his attorneys to contact the ethics office after learning of the report from Fielding, said his lawyers "did what was ethical and proper."
In response to other questions, Meese said:
* He considers himself liable for legal fees stemming from Stein's investigation. Meese is seeking more than $720,000 from the government to pay the legal fees, but he said yesterday that his attorneys will accept whatever a special court awards them. He also indicated that he would not reimburse them for the difference.
* He does not oppose using polygraph examinations to investigate "leaks" by government officials.
* As attorney general, one of his priorities would be to protect the "law-abiding from the lawless," with deference to citizens' constitutional rights of citizens. He said he also would safeguard individual privacy from "improper governmental intrusion," defend the "civil rights of all Americans" and promote regulations to "expand economic freedom."
* He does not see a disparity between his seeking government reimbursement for his attorneys in the Stein investigation at $250 per hour and his support for a proposal to limit lawyers' fees for civil rights cases to $75 per hour, because the administration proposal is not yet law. "If the administration position [on legal fees in civil rights cases] had been in effect at that time [of the Stein probe], I would have felt obliged to be charged $75 per hour," Meese said.
* Funding for the Legal Services Corp. should be abolished, and the government instead should provide legal services to the poor through grants to state bar associations.
When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), in his opening statement, wondered whether the poor, minorities and the disadvantaged "can look to you as someone who is standing in their corner over the next four years," Thurmond shot back: "The very question the senator raised was raised in the election. I think the people settled that."
Nevertheless, during his own opening statement, Meese pledged that, if confirmed, he will "secure equal protection of the law for all citizens regardless of their race, creed, background or economic circumstance." He also promised to do "everything in my power to uphold the Justice Department's long and distinguished history of dedicated service to the nation" and to bring about "evenhanded justice in the United States."
Meese's critics questioned whether he has the ethical sensitivity necessary for an attorney general, while his supporters said he met -- and exceeded -- the necessary standards.
"Mr. Meese has not satisfied, in the minds of some, the obligation to avoid even the appearance of misconduct," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said. "This accusation has apparently become the last resort for those determined to assassinate a good man's character."
Hatch said the standard of avoiding even appearances of conflicts of interest is an "absurd and grotesque standard" that "few of us in this body could satisfy."
But Metzenbaum had a different view. "The facts lead me inevitably to conclude that Mr. Meese lacks the integrity of character, the evenhandedness of purpose and the sensitivity to ethical values required of the attorney general of the United States," he said.
Throughout the hearing, Meese spoke in a strong, clear voice, smiling frequently and seemingly unperturbed by the attacks on his character. He sat at a desk facing the senators; beside him was Sen. Pete Wilson of California, Meese's home state. Several yards away were Meese's wife, Ursula, daughter Dana, son Michael and daughter-in-law Ramona.
The hearing room was packed with reporters, photographers and others.
In response to Metzenbaum's questions as to why Meese did not recuse himself from the meeting resulting in the appointment of his accountant, McKean, to the postal board of governors, Meese said: "I received nothing of value from Mr. McKean." He added that the loans McKean arranged for him were "an arm's-length transaction."
"Did it cross your mind at the time of that meeting that White House standards of conduct might be applicable?" Metzenbaum asked.
"No, senator," Meese answered. "At the time, it didn't cross my mind."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said he wanted to ask Meese a question that the senator had been asked by a newspaper in his home state, which he characterized as "probably the most Republican state in the nation."
"Was there anybody," Leahy said, "who had either given loans or financial aid to you or your family who wasn't subsequently given a federal job?"
Meese said at least one person who fit that description was James Schmidt, then senior vice president of Great American First Savings Bank, a bank that gave the Meeses three loans.
The two Office of Government Ethics lawyers who prepared the report saying that Meese probably violated federal ethical regulations are scheduled to be the first witnesses at the hearings today.