The case of Michael K. Deaver -- the former White House deputy chief of staff now embroiled in controversy over his multimillion-dollar Washington consulting business -- has again raised questions about the ethical standards of senior officials in the Reagan administration.
Every administration has had its embarrassments and scandals; Dwight D. Eisenhower had Sherman Adams and his vicuna coat, Lyndon B. Johnson had Bobby G. Baker and his tax problems, Richard M. Nixon had Spiro T. Agnew, Jimmy Carter had Bert Lance and brother Billy. But the number of high-level Reaganites who have gotten into some kind of trouble appears to be without precedent.
A Washington Post review of past investigations and press accounts found that 110 senior administration officials have been accused of unethical or illegal conduct since January 1981. Case-by-case listings on Pages A12 and A13.
The sheer number of cases led the Democrats to try to create an issue in 1984 that they labeled "the sleaze factor," but their efforts had no apparent political impact. Recent revelations about Deaver and others, however, have again focused public attention on ethics in government.
Dozens of senior Reagan administration officials have been forced to resign or withdraw their nominations. Many have been accused of questionable behavior -- from improper use of government limousines to failing to fully disclose their finances -- but cleared of intentional wrongdoing by internal inquiries. The Justice Department has occasionally criticized the conduct involved, but has generally declined to prosecute on grounds that the cases have insufficient evidence or insufficient importance.
Some, like Paul Thayer and Rita M. Lavelle, have gone to jail; others, like Anne M. Burford and Louis O. Giuffrida, have resigned under fire; some, like Donald J. Devine and Leslie Lenkowsky, have had their nominations withdrawn or rejected; still others, like William J. Casey, Charles Z. Wick and Deaver, have repeatedly found themselves the targets of accusations of impropriety, but no charges have been brought against them.
Six presidential appointees have been indicted; two were convicted, two acquitted and two are awaiting trial. Both of Reagan's attorneys general -- William French Smith and Edwin Meese III -- have battled allegations of ethics violations.
Ten senior officials resigned or were fired from the Environmental Protection Agency following allegations of wrongdoing. Seven top officials at the Housing and Urban Development Department also left office under a cloud. Two successive heads of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and two successive presidents of the now-defunct Synthetic Fuels Corp. resigned amid conflict-of-interest charges.
Asked about the high number of cases, Fred F. Fielding, who recently resigned as White House counsel, replied: "I really don't think there are more venal people being brought into this administration, or less honest people than in previous administrations. There's a heck of a lot more scrutiny by the press, and the laws are tighter now."
Another explanation was offered by Charles L. Dempsey, who served as inspector general of both HUD and the EPA during Reagan's first term. "This is a businessman's administration, and these guys are used to wheeling and dealing," Dempsey said. "This administration is loaded with guys bringing the business morality to Washington, and some of them never learn. It's like they flunked a course in basic civics."
Dempsey said that the White House used HUD as "a turkey farm" for extremist Republicans who proved eager to exploit their government appointments. Dempsey briefed senior HUD officials on federal ethics rules in early 1981, he said, "and most of those who later got their ass in a sling sat there and ignored it."
The handful of Reagan appointees who have faced criminal charges are no match for the record of the Nixon administration: 21 people who worked for President Richard M. Nixon were charged with crimes related to Watergate and 17 were convicted. Those people faced charges growing out of abuses such as wiretapping, obstruction of justice, burglaries, illegal campaign contributions and the like. The Reagan era has been typified by allegations of personal enrichment, favoritism and conflicts of interest.
To be sure, this is the first full administration that has had to cope with a phalanx of post-Watergate laws, principally the 1978 Ethics in Government Act passed during the Carter administration. Hundreds of top appointees now must detail their income, assets and liabilities on forms filed with the Office of Government Ethics. Nearly every federal agency has an inspector general to examine internal wrongdoing. The law requires appointment of an independent counsel to examine serious allegations against more than 100 top officeholders, which led to investigations of Meese and former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan (both were cleared of criminal wrongdoing, although Donovan was later indicted in New York).
But critics say a new Washington ethic has evolved: that helping friends or trading on presumed access to policymakers is perfectly proper. "The new message is if it's tolerated, it's okay," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who has compiled a "Dishonor Roll" of administration appointees. "The people who bring up these problems are considered whiners and wimps. There's no capacity for outrage by the chairman of the board, and the chairman of the board sets the tone."
Reagan has consistently defended his appointees when they come under fire and almost never asks an aide to resign. The 1983 controversy that rocked EPA, for example, seemed to be a serious political embarrassment, and it led to a significant tightening of environmental enforcement policies after Anne Burford left the agency. But when the episode was over, Reagan said: "There was not one single allegation that was proved in any way that stood up under all the shouting and the furor that went on." He also questioned the motives of those who criticized Burford, saying:
"I don't think that the people who were attacking her were concerned about the environment. I don't think they were concerned about any possible wrongdoing . . . . I wonder how they manage to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning . . . ."
Reagan defended Attorney General Smith when he was criticized for using the kind of tax shelter that the Internal Revenue Service had ruled abusive. "I don't think the point's been made by anyone that the so-called tax shelters are things passed by Congress to encourage investment or speculation in certain undertakings," Reagan said.
The president has also rejected criticism of Deaver, his longtime friend, saying he had the "utmost faith" in him and that calls for an independent counsel's investigation are "ridiculous."
Reagan was similarly reassuring last year after Deaver used a diplomatic passport to try to buy a BMW luxury car at a discount in West Germany, calling that "a standard practice that's been used for many, many years."
Last week it was revealed that since he left the White House last year, Deaver has been receiving the president's daily confidential schedule. Deaver, who is registered as a foreign agent for Canada, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, has also retained his White House pass since reentering private life.
Fielding challenged the validity of various "lists" of administration wrongdoers, saying they included people who were wrongly accused or later cleared. "There should not be a presumption of dishonesty or illegality if someone makes a mistake," he said.
But others say that insensitivity to ethical standards has become commonplace in this administration. "It's ho-hum, another day, another little scandal," Schroeder said.