The Senate ethics committee unanimously recommended yesterday that the Senate denounce Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) for "unequivocally unethical" and "reprehensible" conduct and order him to pay more than $124,000 in restitution for improper honoraria and Senate travel reimbursements.
The panel also urged that the case against Durenberger be referred to the Senate Republican Party Caucus, which could consider further sanctions such as stripping him of his 12 years of seniority in the Senate.
In addition, while finding no violation of criminal laws by Durenberger, the committee referred materials accumulated in its probe to the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission for further investigation.
The committee's recommendation stiffened an earlier proposal from special counsel Robert S. Bennett that Durenberger be denounced for padding his income in violation of Senate rules through a book publishing deal, a condominium exchange and acceptance of free limousine service from special interest groups.
Moments after committee Chairman Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) and Vice Chairman Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) disclosed the committee's action at a news conference, Durenberger appeared before reporters in the same gallery to acknowledge "serious mistakes" and agree to restitution as a "tangible sign of my regret."
"I am sorry," he said. "I have made serious mistakes. I acknowledge them and I accept full responsibility." Durenberger said he would not answer questions until he read the committee's official report.
Heflin and Rudman said Senate leaders have indicated they want to schedule consideration of the committee's proposed sanctions against Durenberger before the Senate goes on a month-long recess early next month. Rudman said the deliberations could be completed in one day; Heflin said they could take three days.
In the most recent ethics case to come before the full Senate, Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.) was denounced in 1979 for improprieties in handling campaign and office expense accounts. He was subsequently defeated for reelection.
Senate parliamentarians categorize "denouncement" as a form of censure, the strongest form of internal discipline short of expulsion, which was rejected by both Bennett and the committee. Heflin said the committee rejected a member's proposal during its closed-door meeting yesterday that the sanction be changed to censure but declined to say which was considered the stronger punishment.
The only important distinction is between a reprimand by the committee and a sanction considered sufficiently serious to go to the Senate floor, said Rudman. "I would say it is very serious," he added of the proposed denouncement.
The financial restitution, which Bennett had suggested as an option but did not specifically recommend, would include $29,050 plus interest to be paid back to the Senate for travel reimbursements Durenberger received for staying in a Minneapolis condominium in which he owned an interest.
It would also include $95,000 -- to be paid to any charity in which Durenberger has no affiliation -- to cover fees for book promotion speeches that he received in 1985 and 1986 in what Bennett characterized as an attempt to evade Senate limits on outside income.
In its resolution the ethics panel, composed of three Republicans and three Democrats, found that Durenberger's conduct "has been reprehensible and has brought the Senate into dishonor and disrepute." It found that Durenberger "knowingly and willingly engaged in conduct that was in violation of statutes, rules and Senate standards and acceptable norms of ethical conduct." His conduct was "clearly and unequivocally unethical," the committee concluded.
At a hearing on the case last month, James Hamilton, Durenberger's lawyer, contended that denouncement was too severe a penalty, but Durenberger made no mention of the recommendation yesterday. "I have learned from the past; I will now spend my time focusing on the future," he said.
In the history of the Senate, only eight members have been "censured," "condemned" or "denounced." Despite a semantical difference, each form of rebuke carries the same weight and requires a simple majority for passage. None of the three declarations is as strong as expulsion which requires a two-thirds majority vote. -- James Schwartz
Timothy Pickering (Federalist-Mass.), 1811: Censured for reading confidential documents in open Senate session before an injunction of secrecy was removed.
Benjamin Tappan (D-Ohio), 1844: Censured for releasing to the New York Evening Post a copy of President John Tyler's message to the Senate regarding the Treaty of Annexation between the United States and the Republic of Texas.
Benjamin Tillman (D-S.C.) and John McLaurin (D-S.C.), 1902: Censured for engaging in a fist fight in the Senate chamber.
Hiram Bingham (R-Conn.), 1929: Censured for employing as a Senate staff member someone who was simultaneously employed by the Manufacturers Association of Connecticut.
Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), 1954: Condemned for his abuse of and non-cooperation with the subcommittee on privileges and elections during a 1952 investigation of his conduct.
Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.), 1967: Censured for using his office to convert campaign funds to his personal benefit.
Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), 1979: Denounced for improper financial conduct in accepting reimbursement of $43,435.83 for official expenses not incurred and for improper reporting of campaign receipts and expenditures.
SOURCE: Senate Historical Office