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Secrecy on S&L report doesn't speak well for ethics panel

The savings and loan scandal seems to corrupt everything it touches. The integrity of the Senate ethics committee could be the latest casualty. Its handling of the Keating Five case has strained the committee's nonpartisan character and, fairly or not, created a perception that its work is not above politics. It didn't have to turn out this way. All the committee had to do was release the 354-page report turned in by its special counsel, Robert Bennett, on Sept. 10.

The ethics committee has six members, three from each party. Senate Republicans have charged that the committee Democrats, including chairman Howell Heflin of Alabama, are withholding the report's findings and recommendations from the public until after the Nov. 6 elections, lest the disclosure spoil the joyride Democrats have been on since routing President Bush and the Republicans on the tax issue.

Instead of clearing Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as recommended by Bennett, the politically divided committee scheduled a public hearing on the case the week after the elections. In letting McCain and Glenn off the hook, Bennett recommended that the committee intensify its investigation of the remaining three senators caught up in one of the largest S&L failures in history _ Alan Cranston of California, Don Riegle of Michigan and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona.

The decision prompted McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and the only Republican among the Keating Five, to charge the committee with "political cowardice." Glenn, the hero-astronaut whose image has been tarnished by the scandal, expressed bewilderment and disappointment in the committee's action.

Both complained that the committee had promised to hear each senator's case separately. Now all five will appear jointly at the hearings. For now at least, the committee is making no distinctions among the five, who reaped a total of $1.3-million in political contributions after helping Charles H. Keating Jr. fend off federal regulators. Keating is out of jail on $300,000 bail awaiting trial on criminal fraud charges in connection with the failure of his Lincoln S&L.

According to some news reports, the committee split along partisan lines over releasing the report. At least two of its Republican members _ Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and Trent Lott of Mississippi _ reportedly wanted to make the report public. The Democrats did not.

The S&L scandal helped drive House Speaker Jim Wright and his whip, Tony Coelho, out of the House in 1989, and without McCain, the Senate side of the scandal would be an all-Democrat lineup. This would be an embarrassing blow to the Democrats' effort in the tax debate to portray themselves as champions of the little people.

Would the Bennett report remind voters that Democrats, for all their talk about soaking the rich with higher taxes, are not above bathing their wealthy contributors, including sleazy S&L owners, with favors?

If Neil Bush, the president's son, is the poster boy of the S&L scandal, as Democrats have labeled him, then are the Keating Five, or the Keating Three, the scandal's centerfold?

The Senate's ethics watchdogs have decided the answer to these and other questions will have to wait until a more politically convenient time.

In deciding to hold a post-election hearing on the case, the committee said in a statement that it had made no findings, "including no finding that there is reason to believe" that any of the senators violated Senate rules or federal law.

This is unusual, if not unprecedented. Public hearings usually are scheduled only after the committee finds reason to believe an ethics violation has occurred. Why the change in procedure?

Heflin, a hefty former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice with a man-in-the-moon face, and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a former federal district judge, are all bent out of shape because someone leaked parts of the Bennett file to the press. This, they noted dourly, is itself a serious violation of Senate ethics rules.

They chose to ignore a larger question _ the public's right to know, in a timely fashion, what its elected representatives did, if anything, to help unscrupulous S&L owners skirt the laws and regulations governing their industry. There is no reason why the Bennett report could not be released prior to the election or the public hearings. None of the Keating Five is up for re-election this year.

The issue is not whether McCain and Glenn should be exonerated based on the findings of the committee's special counsel. Their conduct in the Keating affair deserves full scrutiny. The issue is whether the committee has allowed political considerations to seep into the process.

Bennett spent nine months and $1-million in taxpayers' money compiling evidence in the case. His report may not have all the answers, but it likely offers plenty of clues as to what happened and how the blame should be apportioned.

The ethics committee does most of its work behind closed doors. Sadly, there is a perception that in the case of the Keating Five, it has cracked the door to politics.

Phil Gailey is Washington editor for the St. Petersburg Times.