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Sometimes constituent service goes too far

What do you do when the passport for which you applied in plenty of time still hasn't arrived and your airline tickets are nonrefundable? You call your congressman, of course, as I did in such a situation several years ago. His calls get answered. Typically, the passport was found on the bottom of a pile somebody simply hadn't gotten around to. Multiply that one case by millions of backlogged veterans' claims, Social Security applications, Medicare complaints and immigration problems and it explains why "constituent service" rather than legislation occupies more than half the staff time of an average congressional office. No complaint is too petty or bizarre to be heard out. George Cretekos, who manages Rep. Bill Young's district office, took one on a Saturday night from a citizen who was irate that the county's spray truck hadn't come by in time to save an outdoor party from an onslaught by mosquitoes.

This kind of constituent service _ oiling the treads of a ponderous bureaucracy _ is universally understood to be a fitting and necessary thing for Congress to do. But some members don't know where to draw the line. All five senators implicated in the Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal have pleaded the defense of "constituent service," as if tracking down a Medicare claim were no different from lobbying the White House to put a banker's crony on the board that regulated him, or trying to negotiate the suspension of a rule the banker doesn't like, or calling four of the board's employees from San Francisco to a secret meeting on Capitol Hill to explain why they are trying to shut the bank down. The typical lawmaker's constituent service does not cost the taxpayers $1-billion, which is the expense attributed to the government's two-year delay in putting Lincoln out of business.

Since only the two senators from Arizona, Democrat Dennis DeConcini and Republican John McCain, could factually claim Lincoln's proprietor Charles Keating as a constituent, the Senate Ethics Committee is having to consider how far geographically the rubric can be stretched. More significantly, it had also better be prepared to say at what point "constituent service" ends and corruption begins. Unlike the typical claimant for veteran's, Medicare or Social Security benefits, Keating had provided money to the lawmakers who were helping him. Quite a lot of money, in fact _ some $1.3-million to the senators' campaigns or to political committees they controlled.

But the experts say that it is not automatically against Senate rules to do things that help contributors, so the committee is said to be looking for evidence of "linkage" between money and favors. As a legal matter, this sort of evidence may be hard to find. People like Keating are rarely so dumb as to put it in writing or say it in front of witnesses.

From the published leaks, however, it would seem that the committee has such a mass of evidence that three of the senators _ DeConcini, Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich., and Alan Cranston, D-Calif., _ worked so hard on Keating's behalf and kept at it for so long, even after being warned that there was likely criminality at Lincoln, that their deeds, as lawyers say, speak for themselves.

Other documents suggest a more-than-coincidental connection to campaign support. Riegle, then ranking member and future chairman of the Banking Committee, received $78,250 from a Keating fund-raiser less than a month before the extraordinary secret meeting with the Bank Board's regulators.

Many of Cranston's contacts with Keating were through Cranston's fund-raiser, Joy Jacobson _ not a Senate employee _ who wrote him a memorandum that Keating and other contributors would "rightfully expect" his help in exchange for their money. In another memo reported by the Washington Post, Jacobson noted that Edwin Gray, Keating's nemesis, had been replaced as Bank Board chairman by M. Danny Wall. "Good news to Keating," she wrote. "You should ask Keating for $250,000." He did.

Ultimately, Keating provided Cranston with $850,000 for voter registration projects that appear to have been nothing more than Cranston's campaign in disguise.

The ethics committee's special counsel, concluding that McCain and John Glenn, D-Ohio, were much less involved, has recommended no further action against them. Republicans complain the committee has been slow to agree because it would leave only Democrats wriggling on the hook. Perhaps, but there are Republicans who ought to join them. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that 16 Republican House members, including Whip Newt Gingrich and present Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, signed a 1986 letter trying to pry confidential documents out of the Bank Board. The documents could have helped Keating and other S&L operators in difficulty with the board.

If Congress finds it hard to detect corruption in cases such as those, the citizenry has a more sensitive nose.

The Keating scandal is about corruption, and it does not help the politicians involved that they are only part of a corrupt system. It is in their power to change it. Why haven't they? After so many years, why is it still legal for people like Keating to funnel millions of corporate dollars into campaigns through the guise of "voter registration" or "party-building." Why hasn't public assistance been made available to candidates who would be willing to forgo the private money? Why is Congress going to adjourn yet again without enacting a campaign reform law?

Martin Dyckman is chief editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times.