The Justice Department announced yesterday that it is investigating a "very few" members of Congress, most of whom have left office, for possible crimes they committed in using the now-closed House Bank.
Attorney General William P. Barr ordered the criminal inquiry at the recommendation of special prosecutor Malcolm R. Wilkey, who has been investigating the House Bank scandal. Wilkey's 49-page report to Barr discloses no names, but Justice Department sources said the former federal judge's inquiry found possible criminal misconduct by fewer than 10 members, most of whom are out of office, as well as some House Bank employees.
For that group, Wilkey said in an interview, "The only way to clear this up is to hear evidence before a grand jury."
Wilkey said his investigation, which was condemned by House members as overly zealous and an invasion of privacy, uncovered "systematic abuse" of the internal bank that would have gone unchecked without a full-scale inquiry.
"Can anyone imagine the attitude and practices . . . in future years, if this inquiry looking toward specific criminal violations had not been undertaken?" his report said.
Almost 20 House members, including four still in office, did not receive letters from Wilkey clearing them of wrongdoing. But Wilkey said in the interview that most eventually will be cleared. Investigators need more time because the bank accounts were especially complicated or members were still providing information, he said.
The four current members yet to be cleared are Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who chairs the House Government Operations Committee; Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.); Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), according to the members' offices and the Associated Press.
While Wilkey exonerated more than 300 former and current members in his nine-month inquiry, his report portrayed the scandal as more serious than many members were willing publicly to acknowledge. House leaders played down the controversy, but challengers found a potent campaign issue in disclosures that the bank covered more than 8,000 bad checks written by members in a single year.
The outcry over the House Bank, which closed more than a year ago, focused largely on overdrafts that members routinely ran up on their checking accounts. But, according to Wilkey's report, the Justice Department will have a hard time proving the overdrafts, once estimated to average nearly $19,000 a day, constituted a crime.
That is partly because the House Bank, operating on the credo of "never embarrass a member," informally notified members of overdrawn accounts, the report said. Although one House Bank clerk devoted most of her time to calling members about overdrafts, no records of the calls exist and the monthly bank statements to members always showed a positive balance.
Moreover, the bank's policy of honoring bad checks effectively protects members from any criminal charges related to overdrafts because, under D.C. law, no crime occurs unless the financial institution returns a bad check for insufficient funds, Wilkey said.
Wilkey said in the interview that criminal investigators will focus on half a dozen other possible offenses. One is check-kiting, or trying to cover bad checks written on one account with bad checks written on other accounts.
The report said the House Bank offered "a golden opportunity" for a check-kiting scheme, but investigators must probe more deeply to determine whether any member displayed "the intent necessary to constitute a provable criminal office."
Some members so abused the bank that even its easygoing managers felt compelled to clamp down, according to the report. Bank officials eventually refused to honor checks of at least five members if there was not enough money in their accounts. They stamped the checks "refer to maker" instead of "insufficient funds" because it "was considered less embarrassing," the report said.
Wilkey took pains to counter members' claims that the scandal involved no public funds, saying that all of the bank's money belonged to taxpayers until actually disbursed. The money used to cover some bad checks came from the bank's working capital provided by the Treasury Department, the report noted.
Although House Bank employees later docked the members' House Bank accounts for the amounts involved and no public funds were lost, Wilkey said that does not necessarily mean no crime occurred.
The report criticized audits by the General Accounting Office (GAO), investigative arm of Congress, saying that from 1977 to 1989, the reports disclosed little about the bank's problems.
House Bank employees typically knew exactly when GAO auditors were coming to conduct a "surprise" audit, according to the report. The audits suggested the bank was operating soundly even when the auditors discovered that Jack Russ, the sergeant-at-arms who ran the bank, had bounced checks there.
Finally, in 1989, the GAO notified House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) that Russ bounced $104,000 in personal checks. Russ resigned earlier this year after a House ethics committee report criticized his handling of the bank.
Wilkey, who ended his work as special prosecutor yesterday, conducted the review with the help of five Justice Department prosecutors, one of whom will now take over the investigation. More than 600,000 documents were computerized.
Wilkey referred some possible civil violations to the Federal Election Commission and to congressional officials who handle financial disclosure forms.
Staff writer Kenneth J. Cooper and researchers Barbara Saffir and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.