The Senate ethics committee yesterday concluded two months of emotional, contentious hearings on the propriety of five senators' dealings with savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr. as defense attorneys urged full exoneration of the senators, saying they did no wrong.
In a biting response to committee special counsel Robert S. Bennett, lawyers for Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Donald W. Reigle Jr. (D-Mich.) challenged Bennett's assertion Tuesday that there is substantial evidence to conclude that those three senators acted improperly.
To varying degrees, they also accused Bennett of undue prosecutorial zeal and stacking the case against the three senators.
By contrast, attorneys for Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom Bennett did not appear to fault for any ethical violations, pleaded with the panel to consider their cases separately from those of the others.
Bennett stood his ground in an impassioned final plea to the committee to reject the argument made by Cranston, DeConcini and their defenders in the Senate that their conduct was no different than that of most other lawmakers.
"I feel in a ridiculous position," Bennett said. "I'm here saying, hey guys, everyone doesn't do it. . . . If everybody does do what we've done here, then that means this place doesn't have an infection that can be cured. It means you're terminal."
Courts do not accept that argument when it is made by "some of the more unfortunate of our society," Bennett continued. "Why should it be a defense for the most fortunate . . . the most privileged in our society?" he asked.
In response to the senators' arguments that they were only helping a constituent when they came to Keating's aid, Bennett said the "ultimate constituent disservice" would be for the committee to tell the American people that the Senate does not have ethical standards that cover a case such as this.
The committee is expected to begin closed-door deliberations on the fate of the "Keating Five" on Jan. 30, after studying final briefs from the lawyers. Panel members have indicated one or more of the senators probably will be recommended for discipline by the Senate, which could include expulsion or, more likely, censure of some kind.
At issue is whether any or all of the senators were influenced by $1.3 million that Keating raised for their campaigns and causes when they intervened with thrift regulators on behalf of his Lincoln Savings and Loan Association before it was declared insolvent and seized by the government in 1989 at a cost of $2 billion to the taxpayers.
Committee Chairman Howell T. Heflin (D-Ala.) and Vice Chairman Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) went out of their way yesterday to assert that none of the five could be blamed for the savings and loan scandal. "The common public perception that these five senators, by meeting with the regulators, cost the taxpayers $2 billion is simply not accurate," said Rudman. But they gave few other clues to how they will vote in the case.
Most prominently in dispute as the hearings ended was whether the senators should be judged only by their conduct or whether they also could be disciplined for an appearance of wrongdoing that might reflect adversely on the Senate as a whole.
DeConcini, the only senator to plead personally for exoneration, took issue with Bennett's argument that the Senate has such an appearance standard and that the five senators should be judged under it. "You are being asked to approve a new standard and apply it retroactively, which would be grossly unfair," DeConcini argued.
Shaking with anger, DeConcini said he intervened with the regulators to save the jobs of 2,000 Arizonans employed by Lincoln's parent corporation, American Continental, and not to help Keating. "I resent the fact that I have to tell this committee and the American people that I intervened for 2,000 Arizonans and not for Charles Keating," he said.
In his argument Tuesday, Bennett had suggested links between Keating's fund-raising and actions taken by DeConcini on Keating's behalf and said DeConcini ignored several "red flags" about Keating's honesty that gave pause to other senators.
"I did not violate my public trust here. What I did was expected of me. It is expected of me to stand up for Arizonans," DeConcini said. "I know where the line is; I know what you can do and what you can't do, and I acted properly," he added.
To judge senators by appearances alone, if no actual misconduct is found, would be to "reduce ethics to a public relations exercise," said James Hamilton, DeConcini's attorney.
In his final argument, Bennett had ridiculed the notion that senators have not been judged in the past and cannot be judged now for an appearance of wrongdoing.
To deny that the Senate requires an appearance of propriety for its members is to impose a "double standard" under which senators would be exempt from rules applicable to all other government employees. "Gentlemen," he said, "that is unacceptable."
William W. Taylor III, Cranston's attorney, suggested that Cranston was being pursued as a "scapegoat" for the savings and loan scandal as he nears the end of a long career in the Senate and begins a battle against prostate cancer, for which he is currently being treated at a hospital in California.
"Now, in the twilight of his career, Alan Cranston must face the accusation . . . that he became Charles Keating's marionette and single-handedly changed the course of decisions at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. Members of the committee, that is preposterous," said Taylor.
Taylor argued that the facts indicate Cranston did nothing wrong but added: "When you're looking for scapegoats, facts are the last thing you want to hear about."
Bennett had said there were at least four occasions on which Cranston solicited funds from Keating for voter registration groups he created "knowing full well Charles Keating recently had asked for his assistance" on behalf of Lincoln.
Thomas C. Green, attorney for Riegle, defended Riegle's actions as proper and consistent with Senate ethics rules, arguing that the Michigan senator had less contact with regulators than any of the other senators and never asked anyone to do anything for Keating.
Green also sharply protested Bennett's suggestion that Riegle may not have been telling the truth during his testimony when he repeatedly denied remembering contacts with Keating and others and said he had no role in setting up a key meeting between regulators and the senators in March 1987.
Glenn's attorney, Charles F.C. Ruff, said Glenn was seeking to be judged by the "toughest standards you can devise for yourselves, your colleagues and him" and that Glenn did not believe that "we can use the system as an excuse" for any individual senator's misconduct, a reference to suggestions that the Senate's campaign financing system is to blame for any transgressions.
Glenn, who sat through nearly all of two days of final arguments, told reporters after Ruff's presentation that he expects to be exonerated.
John M. Dowd, McCain's lawyer, said McCain repeatedly refused to go along with what he regarded as improper requests from Keating and others and did nothing else wrong in the case. "He has been judged not by his conduct but by the conduct of others," said Dowd. "He is entitled to a straight, crisp, clear answer . . . without regard to the conduct of others or partisan considerations." McCain, who also has said he expects to be cleared of any wrongdoing, is the only Republican in the group.