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White House stumbling over ethics

Published Oct. 13, 2005

The sleaze factor is slipping back into the White House. During the Reagan administration the number of ethical transgressions by high-ranking presidential advisers created a sleaze factor that resulted in dozens of resignations, dismissals and indictments.

The Bush administration repudiated such conduct, vowing it would tolerate no impropriety in the behavior and finances of its high officials.

The credibility of that repudiation was first rocked by disclosures of personal use of military aircraft by John Sununu, Bush's chief of staff.

We also have learned that Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, whose Justice Department negotiated the settlement between Exxon, Alaska and the federal government stemming from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, invested $32,296 in two companies that are members of Alyeska, the consortium that owns and operates the Trans-Alaska pipeline.

Coincidentally, department negotiators absolved Alyeska of all liability in the now defunct settlement. Alyeska, which is responsible for responding to tanker accidents in Alaska's Prince William Sound, has been widely criticized for its actions during the spill.

Apparently, the Justice Department was unaware of, or unconcerned about, newly disclosed memos demonstrating that Alyeska misrepresented to Congress and Alaska its ability to respond to a spill and failed to upgrade that ability.

In rejecting the proposed settlement, Judge Russel Holland said the department's inclusion of Alyeska in the settlement was "inappropriate."

Thornburgh, who calls his $32,296 "insignificant," sought and got a waiver from the Ethics in Government Act from Bush one week before he signed the settlement.

Questions about Thornburgh's sensitivity to ethics won't be assuaged by his dubious decision to remain as attorney general while seeking a Senate seat from Pennsylvania.

And what about the flagrant conflicts of interest that riddle the presidential commission on military-base closings?

Five of the eight members had financial links with companies that are directly tied to the Pentagon, among them defense contractors and companies that clean up toxic pollution on many bases.

One member, Alexander Trowbridge, has already resigned because he sits on the boards of two companies that service military bases.

It was dismaying to learn that Jim Courter, the former Republican representative, while serving as commission chairman simultaneously has been a $3,000-a-month lobbyist for Grumann, one of the largest defense contractors. Moreover, Courter negotiated to become a consultant with yet another contractor, the scandal-ridden Northrop Corp.

Only after public disclosure did Courter and others suspend their financial relationships.

If Courter had to persuade a legislator to vote favorably on a defense contract, how would this wooing affect Courter's decision to close a base in that legislator's district or state?

Members of Congress, who have expressed concerns about political scheming in the Pentagon's process for selecting bases for closure, will surely question whether the commissioners made decisions free of the interests of those who have paid them salaries and dividends.

As for the sleaze factor, did the Bush White House know of the conflicts that permeate the commission and cavalierly dismiss them _ or not even bother to look in the first place?

Whatever the answer, evidently the pernicious influence of private financial interest remains a problem for Republican administrations.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is chairman of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.

New York Times