The long confirmation process of Attorney General Edwin Meese III is behind him, but it is not forgotten on Capitol Hill.

Several members have become concerned about an opinion that the director of the Office of Government Ethics issued during Meese's confirmation hearing last winter.

They view it as a new -- and disturbing -- interpretation of the federal ethics laws.

In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, the director of the ethics office, David G. Martin, expressed the opinion that appearances of impropriety such as those aired in Meese's case were "problems," but not conflicts of interest that violate federal standards set out in a 1965 executive order.

On several occasions, Meese had omitted information from his disclosure forms about personal loans he had received from persons who later obtained government jobs.

"Certainly you want to caution against avoiding appearances [of impropriety]," Martin said, "but I just don't see how you can label that a violation."

Several members of the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, including its chairman, Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), and ranking minority member, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), disagree.

Cohen said the purpose of the federal ethics laws and standards is to promote confidence in the conduct and decisions of public officials.

"Any attempt to weaken those standards is cause for concern," he said. "Mr. Martin's position deviates from the past policy of the Office of Government Ethics."

Both Cohen and Levin contend that Martin's interpretation runs counter to court cases, agency regulations and precedents in which federal officials have been disciplined for the appearance of conflict of interest. Agency ethics officials, they said, traditionally have treated the appearance of impropriety and an instance of impropriety as the same thing.

For instance, a Housing and Urban Development Department appraiser was fired in 1979 for managing Chicago slum property owned by his wife. A hearing officer for the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) said the employe violated HUD's standards of conduct that require "employes to avoid any involvement, 'real or only apparent,' tending to damage the public's confidence in the integrity of the agency . . . ."

Levin also argues that forgiving top-level officials such as Meese for actions of the kind for which officials in subordinate positions have een punished establishes a double standard.

"I've got real problems with this because it looks like a double standard to me," he said. "There's no support for [Martin's] position in case law or the language of the executive order he's sworn to uphold."

Each agency has an ethics official who investigates cases involving potential conflicts of interest and recommends disciplinary action to the department head. Federal employes can appeal disciplinary actions to the MSPB, which has upheld a number of rulings in which employes were guilty of an appearance of impropriety.

"You can have actual conflict of interest along with the appearance, although sometimes the actual impropriety isn't as bad as it looks," said Susan Collins, the subcommittee's staff director. "Sometimes you can't tell."

"If a contract official takes a ride on a corporate jet of a company he's overseeing and he rules in their favor, is that actual conflict of interest or just the appearance?" she asked.

Martin argues that the executive order requiring federal employes to avoid any action "which might result in, or create the appearance of, impropriety" is only "aspirational in nature." In other words, it is a desirable goal but not a rigid rule.

Martin also contends that his position is supported by a 1983 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The decision restored a contract to a data processing Meese Hearings Over, But Not Forgotten Ethics Chief's Opinion Causes Concern By James R. Dickenson Washington Post Staff Writer

The long confirmation process of Attorney General Edwin Meese III is behind him, but it is not forgotten on Capitol Hill.

Several members have become concerned about an opinion that the director of the Office of Government Ethics issued during Meese's confirmation hearing last winter.

They view it as a new -- and disturbing -- interpretation of the federal ethics laws.

In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, the director of the ethics office, David G. Martin, expressed the opinion that appearances of impropriety such as those aired in Meese's case were "problems," but not conflicts of interest that violate federal standards set out in a 1965 executive order.

On several occasions, Meese had omitted information from his disclosure forms about personal loans he had received from persons who later obtained government jobs.

"Certainly you want to caution against avoiding appearances of impropriety ," Martin said, "but I just don't see how you can label that a violation."

Several members of the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, including its chairman, Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), and ranking minority member, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), disagree.

Cohen said the purpose of the federal ethics laws and standards is to promote confidence in the conduct and decisions of public officials.

"Any attempt to weaken those standards is cause for concern," he said. "Mr. Martin's position deviates from the past policy of the Office of Government Ethics."

Both Cohen and Levin contend that Martin's interpretation runs counter to court cases, agency regulations and precedents in which federal officials have been disciplined for the appearance of conflict of interest. Agency ethics officials, they said, traditionally have treated the appearance of impropriety and an instance of impropriety as the same thing.

For instance, a Housing and Urban Development Department appraiser was fired in 1979 for managing Chicago slum property owned by his wife. A hearing officer for the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) said the employe violated HUD's standards of conduct that require "employes to avoid any involvement, 'real or only apparent,' tending to damage the public's confidence in the integrity of the agency . . . ."

Levin also argues that forgiving top-level officials such as Meese for actions of the kind for which officials in subordinate positions have een punished establishes a double standard.

"I've got real problems with this because it looks like a double standard to me," he said. "There's no support for Martin's position in case law or the language of the executive order he's sworn to uphold."

Each agency has an ethics official who investigates cases involving potential conflicts of interest and recommends disciplinary action to the department head. Federal employes can appeal disciplinary actions to the MSPB, which has upheld a number of rulings in which employes were guilty of an appearance of impropriety.

"You can have actual conflict of interest along with the appearance, although sometimes the actual impropriety isn't as bad as it looks," said Susan Collins, the subcommittee's staff director. "Sometimes you can't tell."

"If a contract official takes a ride on a corporate jet of a company he's overseeing and he rules in their favor, is that actual conflict of interest or just the appearance?" she asked.

Martin argues that the executive order requiring federal employes to avoid any action "which might result in, or create the appearance of, impropriety" is only "aspirational in nature." In other words, it is a desirable goal but not a rigid rule.

Martin also contends that his position is supported by a 1983 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The decision restored a contract to a data processing firm after the contract had been invalidated by a lower court because the contracting process offered the "opportunity for and appearance of impropriety."

The appeals court said the federal rules prohibiting actions that "might result in or create the appearance of" impropriety do "not create specific and precise standards, the violation of which would justify enjoining the department from awarding a contract."

Levin and Cohen contend that the case is irrelevant, and that Martin, in effect, is comparing apples and oranges.

Martin, however, contends that the language of the government's ethics standards is so loose that it gives agencies too much leeway to take action against employes they don't like.

His staff lawyers are drafting language designed to revise the executive order and its implementing regulations.