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No immunity for Keating

Congress has already done more than enough favors for Charlie Keating. The Senate ethics committee should resist the temptation to do him one more. According to the Los Angeles Times, the committee is considering whether to offer him limited immunity to testify against the five senators who ran interference for him with federal savings and loan regulators. The committee denies it. The newspaper stands by its story. Since the committee's deliberations are still nominally secret _ though riddled by leaks _ it is impossible from a distance to know what the truth is. But if the thought of immunizing Keating ever does cross the members' minds, they should remember Oliver North, and swiftly banish it.

North got similar immunity to tell Congress his glorified version of the Iran-Contra scandal. In throwing out North's subsequent criminal conviction, a federal appeals court ruled that two of the three counts may have been tainted by what North told Congress before his criminal trial. It called on the special prosecutor to prove, word by word, that "no use whatsoever was made of any of the immunized testimony either by the witnesses or by the office of independent counsel in questioning the witnesses."

The state of California has already charged Keating with multiple counts of securities fraud in connection with the $2-billion collapse of Lincoln Savings & Loan, but the trial may not take place before the Senate committee opens public hearings on the so-called "Keating Five." Even so, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office already has an extensive grand jury record and doesn't seem to fear that the ethics hearings would sabotage its trial.

The greater danger is to the incomplete federal grand jury investigation of Keating's complex interstate dealings. The Senate committee could damage that, severely.

Is it worth that risk to hear what Keating might say about the five senators _ Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, Donald Riegle, John McCain and John Glenn _ who muscled the Federal Home Loan Bank Board on his behalf? Probably not. Does the committee seriously expect Keating to say that he made it a condition for giving them more than $1-million in campaign contributions?

Granted, such an unlikely statement would be the "smoking gun" the committee supposedly has been unable to find. As if it needed one. Keating has already made it very clear _ and in public _ what he had in mind.

"One question, among many raised in recent weeks," he told reporters in April 1989, "had to do with whether my financial support in any way influenced several political figures to take up my cause. I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so."

A second reason why the committee might need no "smoking gun" is the enormity of the efforts, particularly by Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle, to sway federal regulators on Keating's behalf. Those three kept at it after being told in so many words that the regulators were referring possible criminal violations to the Justice Department. If Congress is incapable of deducing ethical misconduct from such evidence, then "congressional ethics" is indeed a contradiction in terms.

The Keating scandal already has proved _ as if more proof were needed _ that money has become the cancer of politics. Despite that, Congress did not even go to conference on the separate House and Senate campaign reform bills. At the very least, the "soft money" loophole, which allows corporations such as those Keating controlled to support campaigns in the guise of voter registration, should have been closed. If the sorry example of the Keating Five is not enough to shame Congress into action, what would be?