Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) has raised $23 million over the past several years in running for president and twice for the Senate. Probably none of that money has caused him more grief than the $7,300 a trade school official raised for him last fall at a Washington restaurant.
In his years as a reformer in state government and in Washington, Simon has built an image of unquestioned integrity. But that image has been smudged by recent reports about favors he did for Barkev Kibarian, head of the Culinary School of Washington -- who is not from Illinois -- and for another fund-raiser who asked for help in a private dispute on a savings and loan debt.
In the first case, documents released at a Senate hearing showed that a letter bearing Simon's signature, and written by his chief of staff Floyd Fithian, invited a student-loan guarantee agency official to Kibarian's fund-raising event. In the same letter, the official was asked to consider cutting the cooking school's repayment schedule for overdue refunds to students. A few months later, in June, Kibarian's school closed after declaring bankruptcy. It still owed students more than $150,000.
The other case centers on a phone call Simon made last July to a San Francisco financial executive on behalf of a Stephen Ballis, a Chicago developer who has raised about $10,000 for Simon over several years. After the call, Ballis and the San Francisco group settled a dispute over payments on a project the developer had started with a since-failed Chicago savings and loan.
When the Chicago Sun-Times reported the story in August, the attorney for the San Francisco group said he was surprised a senator would intercede in a commercial dispute.
Simon said he did nothing improper in either case. He acknowledged in an interview that his office does not routinely check the claims of those seeking his help.
After the Kibarian disclosure, Simon said he was "not pleased nor proud of the way his office handled this." He donated the $7,300 from the event to the Treasury, and directed his staff "to ensure that the line between legislative and campaign activities remains distinct." He added in an interview that the incident "clearly is very, very much the exception to the way we operate."
In the Ballis case, Simon said he was merely trying "to bring two parties together." In an interview, he added that it is not unusual for him to try to aid a constituent in a private dispute. "We try to help people," he said.
The disclosures put Simon briefly on the defensive. Challenger Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.) filed an ethics complaint against him, held news conferences denouncing his "pattern of misguided actions," and ran "attack ads" claiming he tried to "fix" an S&L case.