'Keating Five' senators face unprecedented ethics hearing this week


WASHINGTON -- It is a remarkable cast, now reluctantly about to take center stage in the biggest financial scandal in U.S. history.

There's a former astronaut. There's a war hero. There are a Senate Democratic power, a lawyer once considered to head the FBI and the head of the Senate Banking Committee.

All five have earned acclaim as senators, but starting this week, the public will see them more harshly -- as "The Keating Five," the men accused of seeking favors for a notorious savings and loan executive who showered them with $1.3 million in political donations.

On Thursday, the Senate Ethics Committee begins an extraordinary trial-like hearing on the five senators. Already, it's clear that the Senate has never handled anything quite like this case. Only four times in history has the Senate held public ethics hearings at all, and only once before have they been televised.

Never before have so many senators been hauled before the committee to explain their behavior. The five: Alan Cranston of California, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, John Glenn of Ohio, John McCain of Arizona (the only

Republican) and Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan.

All five maintain that they have done nothing wrong.

Beyond the spectacle of powerful senators fighting for their political lives, the case of the Keating Five slices directly at the two major arteries of U.S. politics: money and power. Specifically, how far can politicians go in doing favors for their contributors?

"One hopes that the committee tries to draw some serious lines of what is appropriate constituent service," said Stephen Hess, a congressional specialist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"The Congress doesn't like to look at itself, but the committee could go beyond this case and do a real service in that regard. If they don't, these cases could just keep coming and coming."

The five senators are accused of improperly pressuring S&L; regulators on behalf of Lincoln Savings, a California-based savings and loan association.

For the next two years, federal S&L; regulators failed to close Lincoln. When it was finally shut down in 1989, Lincoln Savings left a financial hole estimated at $2.3 billion, to be paid by the taxpayers.

Lincoln Savings was owned by Charles H. Keating Jr., who donated $1.3 million to the senators or their political committees. Mr. Keating was recently indicted and jailed on criminal fraud charges; he remains under investigation by the FBI.

To critics such as Common Cause, which describes itself as a citizens' group, the eagerness of five senators to help Mr. Keating shows how corrupting money has become on Capitol Hill.

"What makes this different from normal constituent services are the facts of this case," said Fred Wertheimer, Common Cause's president. "You have five senators joining together to pressure a regulatory agency on behalf of a financial benefactor, in a matter involving alleged violations of federal statutes and rules.

"That is not calling up the Social Security office to expedite a check for a senior citizen," Mr. Wertheimer said. "The meetings that took place were extraordinary meetings that never should have occurred."

Over and over, the senators have insisted that they were only helping a constituent, which is what senators are supposed to do.

But did these senators go too far? How much can politicians help campaign contributors? It's that murky, ill-defined area that the Senate Ethics Committee will be investigating.

The committee has been reviewing the Keating matter for more than a year, and even its six members couldn't fully agree.

The committee's special counsel recommended that Mr. McCain and Mr. Glenn be dropped from further investigation, which would made it an all-Democratic group, the Keating Three.

When the Democrats balked, the deeply divided committee voted for public hearings for all five senators to "determine whether there is reason to believe any improper conduct may have occurred, and [so that] the American people can hear all the evidence."

The committee hopes to complete the hearings by Christmas. If it thinks that Senate rules were broken, it could recommend that the full Senate apply sanctions, from a letter of rebuke to censure to expulsion.

Mr. Glenn, a former astronaut, and Mr. McCain, once a prisoner of war, hope to be cleared or dropped entirely. Although both severed their ties to Mr. Keating earlier than the others, they also attended two pivotal meetings with S&L; regulators in 1987, when the five senators aired Mr. Keating's views that Lincoln Savings was being mistreated. Mr. Keating has admitted that he donated campaign money to help his cause.

Inside and outside the Senate, there's no consensus about what's proper intervention in such an instance.

Said Bert Ely, an S&L; analyst: "There's a lot of aggressive constituent service that goes on here for large employers and large contributors, and [usually] things go OK and there's no big flap about it. I'm not sure this is so out of the ordinary, except this turned out to be an incredible fiasco."

Aside from the five senators, these other well-known figures may play a role in the hearings:

* Archibald Cox, the former Watergate prosecutor, who filed the initial complaint against the senators on behalf of Common Cause.

* Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, who served as a consultant to Lincoln Savings.

* Sen. Jesse Helms, fresh from a vitriolic victory in North Carolina, who's one of six senators on the Ethics Committee hearing the case.

* Mr. Keating himself.

Mr. Keating isn't expected to appear; if he does, he will likely repeat an earlier congressional appearance and refuse to answer questions. No witness list has been released.

Lincoln Savings is under federal control, and its collapse has left a trail of indictments, civil charges, depression in the Phoenix real estate market and damage to thousands of innocent investors, many of them elderly, who lost $200 million buying worthless bonds in Mr. Keating's company.

The political damage to the senators has been substantial. Last Thursday, Mr. Cranston, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, whose support in California has virtually evaporated, announced that he won't run for re-election in 1992 because of ill health. Mr. Riegle, chairman of the powerful Banking Committee, and Mr. DeConcini, a former prosecutor once considered for the FBI directorship, have suffered serious erosion in political support. Mr. McCain has been damaged, too.

Only Mr. Glenn, a one-time presidential candidate who is still remembered as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth, has been relatively unaffected politically, opinion polls show.

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