ATLANTA, OCT. 17 -- Rep. Patrick L. Swindall (R-Ga.) was indicted today for allegedly perjuring himself 10 times last February before a federal grand jury and hours later persuaded a U.S. District Court judge to start the trial next Monday.
Swindall, who is running for a third term Nov. 8 against actor Ben Jones, has denied wrongdoing and contends that the investigation here by U.S. Attorney Robert L. Barr was politically motivated. Barr, a Republican appointee, said he could not predict whether there would be a verdict before the election.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Vining agreed to begin jury selection Monday after Swindall waived his rights to pretrial proceedings and Barr agreed to an expedited exchange of information between the prosecution and defense.
If convicted, Swindall could face a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine on each of the 10 counts.
Officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, who have viewed Swindall as vulnerable since his narrow victory over Jones two years ago, could hardly contain their glee today. Committee spokeswoman Peggy Connolly predicted that Jones would win the rematch.
Jones was more circumspect. "You can't make rabbit stew until you catch the rabbit," Jones said in a telephone interview from his Decatur headquarters.
The indictment arose from a nationwide Internal Revenue Service investigation into the laundering of illegal drug proceeds. Swindall is accused of lying when he denied knowing that laundered drug profits might be the source of an $850,000 home-construction loan he sought from Atlanta businessman Charles LeChasney in September 1987.
Shortly after LeChasney was arrested last January on federal money-laundering charges, Swindall volunteered to testify before a federal grand jury here about their dealings.
According to the indictment, Swindall testified Feb. 2 that he did not know the potential source of the loan. He also denied that LeChasney gave him details indicating that the transaction might be illegal.
On Sept. 25, 1987, Swindall said, he accepted a $150,000 check as a first installment on the loan from LeChasney but returned it uncashed three days later, saying he was suspicious of LeChasney's business dealings.
The matter became public in June when the Atlanta Journal and Constitution published excerpts of a transcript of Swindall's negotiations with LeChasney, secretly videotaped by IRS investigators.
In a news conference the next day, Swindall said he had been tempted to accept the loan from LeChasney because of cost overruns on his house but rejected it when he became sure the money was illicit. He said he was "ashamed" and hoped that voters would forgive him.
Two weeks ago, as the issue continued to generate heat in the campaign, Swindall wrote to U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh demanding an immediate indictment. He also took the House floor to denounce the IRS undercover operation, repeat his demand for a preelection indictment and declare that he would represent himself in court to clear his name.
Anticipating the indictment, Swindall arranged earlier today to switch court dates with another defendant, indicted in the same probe, who was scheduled for trial Monday. The swap, worked out with the defendant's lawyer, Robert Frier, was accepted by the U.S. attorney and the judge.
On the campaign trail here, Swindall took the news of the indictment calmly, hit an upbeat note with students at DeKalb Christian Academy and greeted a few mothers in the parking lot. "I'm for you now more than ever," said one believer beaming, giving him a hug.
"The whole thing sounds like a bad spy novel," Swindall said as he entered the federal courthouse with his wife, Kim, to be arraigned. "You walk out of the grand jury after giving testimony in good faith and find out the government has another whole agenda."
Lee Raudanis, executive director of the Georgia Republican Party, said he hopes the matter can be resolved before Election Day. But, he added, "at this stage of the game . . . it's up to the voters to determine whether this indictment is sufficient for them to lose confidence."
A poll taken for Jones late last week showed him leading Swindall 51 percent to 33 percent, double the margin of a poll conducted for Jones in September. Jones' pollster, Allan Secrest, said the latest survey showed that more than 50 percent of 4th District voters had a negative view of Swindall.
Swindall, running as a Christian fundamentalist and Reaganite, won his seat in 1984 by defeating a five-term Democrat, Elliott Levitas, in a campaign that featured veiled references to Levitas' Jewish faith. Swindall won reelection against Jones by 53 percent to 47 percent in 1986.
"I'm not going to assume anything," Jones said today. "We are going to continue exactly the kind of campaign we've been running." He said Swindall's legal difficulties are "not something I've been talking about in the campaign, and I'm not going to make it part of the campaign now."
This year, Swindall has run a hard-hitting race in which he has aired commercials accusing Jones of being untruthful about his arrest record when he was suffering from alcoholism. Jones, best known for playing Cooter in the television series "The Dukes of Hazzard," acknowledges that he is a recovering alcoholic and says he has been sober since 1977.