IN THE PAST two weeks, charges of varying seriousness have been made against two senior members of the House, Reps. Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.) and Dan Daniel (D-Va.). These both need to be resolved by the House ethics committee, though not necessarily in the same way.
Mr. Daniel has already pointed the way to a resolution in his case. He has admitted that he repeatedly flew back to his Southside district in planes owned by Beech Aircraft Corp., but did not report them on his disclosure form. House rules require disclosure of gifts, including transportation, worth more than $100, from companies with an interest in legislation. Mr. Daniel says he did not report these trips because the commercial airfare was $98 per trip. He has now agreed to reimburse the money and to amend his disclosure form. The ethics committee may want to consider the case, if only to clarify the law. But no one in the House seems to doubt Mr. Daniel's integrity, or to believe that he did anything worse than make an honest mistake.
The charges against Mr. St Germain, made in The Wall Street Journal last week by reporters Brooks Jackson and Tim Carrington, are on their face more serious. The Journal reported, first, that Mr. St Germain bought five International House of Pancakes restaurants with $1.3 million in loans from Rhode Island banks, on terms that required him to put up little or no cash. Second, the article reported Mr. St Germain profited from real estate investments arranged by a Rhode Island developer who profited from federally subsidized housing programs Mr. St Germain helped obtain for the state. Third, it said Mr. St Germain has benefited from land deals in Florida arranged by a developer who chairs a savings institution regulated by the Banking Committee, and that a top St Germain staffer made calls to federal regulators about applications by the developer's firms.
These charges raise, though they of course do not settle, the question of whether the chairman of the Banking Committee may have used his influence over legislation to enrich himself. It is undisputed that Mr. St Germain entered Congress in 1960 with minimal financial assets and now has a net worth over $2 million. His committee has jurisdiction over heavily regulated businesses, and any member should avoid more assiduously than Mr. St Germain seems to have done even the appearance of using his influence to enrich himself.
Why hasn't the ethics committee taken public action to look into these matters? The quick answer is, because no one has asked. No one, after all, likes to take on the chairman of an important committee. It is possible that the committee is conducting an investigation already -- it won't comment on that. If it is not, it should. This is one case where House members' natural reluctance to investigate one of their colleagues should be outweighed by their concern for upholding proper ethical standards and for the reputation of the House itself.