Partisan rancor over the Senate ethics committee's probe into five senators' ties to savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr. spilled onto the Senate floor yesterday as Republicans accused the panel of delaying action that could result in exonerating the only GOP senator in the case.
Angry Democrats, including Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (Maine) and committee chairman Howell T. Heflin (Ala.), countercharged that an "organized campaign of leaks" was being waged against three of the four Democrats who are under investigation in the high-profile "Keating Five" case.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the only Republican in the case, opened the debate with an emotional appeal that the committee act before Congress adjourns later this week on a special counsel's recommendation that no further action be taken against him and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio). In a report to the committee Sept. 10, special counsel Robert S. Bennett recommended a further full-scale investigation of the other three: Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.).
All five intervened on behalf of Keating's failing Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and received a total of $1.3 million in contributions from Keating to their campaigns and other causes. All have denied any wrongdoing, but documents obtained by the committee indicated that Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle had closer relations with Keating than they have previously acknowledged.
In April 1987, the senators met twice with federal regulators, including Edwin J. Gray , then chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. Gray said they suggested a plan to help Keating's Lincoln thrift, which was on the verge of collapse. At the second meeting, regulators told the senators Lincoln's officers could face criminal investigation. At this point, according to sources, Glenn and McCain broke off contact with Keating, and Riegle dropped efforts to intervene on Keating's behalf.
After receiving Bennett's report, the Select Committee on Ethics interviewed the five senators individually and then scheduled meetings, starting last Thursday, to decide how to proceed. The Thursday and Friday sessions were brief and inconclusive; another meeting is scheduled for today. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a member of the committee, sharply criticized the delays last Friday and said he felt like "an accomplice to a crime."
"Justice delayed is justice denied," said McCain yesterday. "It is clear to any observer that this system is incredibly and inexcusably delayed." He asked that Bennett's entire report be made public.
Standing in a nearly empty chamber, McCain said he was prepared to accept whatever decision the committee makes, but added: "I cannot accept a deliberate effort to withhold the truth and the continued suspicion of a coverup."
McCain did not spell out what he meant by a "coverup," but some Republicans have complained privately that Democrats, including Heflin, who is up for reelection this fall, do not want to clear the lone Republican in the group until after the Nov. 6 congressional elections.
In response to McCain and other Republicans, Mitchell defended the committee and said it was "noteworthy and particularly disturbing" that documents obtained by the committee and leaked to several newspapers "have been limited to accusations against members of the Democratic Party," presumably meaning Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle.
Heflin read a recent press release from Common Cause, the public interest lobbying group that brought the original charges against the five, that it would would be "wholly unwarranted" to drop charges against McCain and Glenn. Heflin said he was not agreeing or disagreeing with the conclusion but thought it "should be given careful consideration."
Attacking the leaks, Heflin said analysis of the contents and timing convinced him "there has been an organized campaign of leaks," possibly from ethics committee members or their staffs. The leaks were clearly to help or hurt one or more of the five senators or "for a political advantage," he said.
Glenn issued a statement urging panel action before adjournment but said he was not seeking "in any manner to influence the committee's decision" on the allegations. Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle made no statements yesterday.