WASHINGTON -- There is a ritualistic pattern to controversies such as the one boiling up around Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown these days. Unless they are resolved quickly, they seem to develop a critical mass of their own that has nothing to do with the facts of the case.
They often begin, as in this instance, with an unsubstantiated allegation that seems to take on more weight because of some mishandling of the original charge. Then partisan critics and the press move on to tangential issues that may not have anything to do with the original allegation but nonetheless add to the perception that something is fishy.
In this case, the original charge -- so far totally lacking any supporting evidence -- is that Brown sought a $700,000 fee paid to a Singapore bank in exchange for his help in lifting the trade embargo on Vietnam. The commerce secretary has replied that he never had "any business, financial or professional relationship with any Vietnamese individual, organization or group claiming to represent Vietnamese government or business interests."
But earlier Brown made a misstep when he issued a statement through an aide that suggested he had never had anything to do with the purported intermediary in the case, Nguyen Van Hao, a former official of South Vietnam now living in Florida.
Then, although continuing to insist there was no business relationship, Brown conceded through his attorney that he had met with Hao on three occasions, including once after he became a member of President Clinton's Cabinet.
That admission has opened the whole can of worms. The White House has become concerned enough so that Brown was called in to make his explanations to Chief of Staff Thomas McLarty.
Some conservative Republicans in Congress began to demand a special prosecutor and held a much-publicized meeting with another Vietnamese man, Binh Thanh Ly, who made the original charge against Brown, although admitting he had never met him. The press has moved on to learn that Brown and his son bought a townhouse in Washington last winter now occupied by Lillian Madsen, a Haitian woman who described herself to reporters as a "close personal friend" of Brown.
What all this has to do with the original allegation before a grand jury in Florida is unclear. The connection seems to be that Madsen's brother-in-law took part in arranging the meetings between Brown and Hao.
The result is that Brown, while predicting that he will be "totally exonerated" by the grand jury, has become besieged -- and a source of unease in the Clinton White House despite the president's own declaration of confidence in him. What is clear from the history of such cases is that the controversy isn't going to end until that grand jury completes its work.
In one sense, Brown makes a likely target. Before he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he was a high-dollar lawyer with a firm -- Patton, Boggs and Blow -- with a reputation for aggressive and effective lobbying. His client list at one time included the Haitian government of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, never high on the list of favorite dictators.
That history was forgotten when Brown performed brilliantly as national chairman of his party, helping candidate Clinton over some rough spots in his primary campaign -- particularly in dealing with such touchy Democrats as Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo.
Brown also created a political operation at the DNC that allowed Clinton a running start in the general election campaign against a Republican incumbent. His effectiveness was so widely acknowledged in the political community that he was one of the two or three people most certain to be given an important post in the administration.
But the first question in politics is always, "What have you done for me lately?" And right now Brown has become a "problem" and a "distraction" from the administration's focus on such broader questions as health care reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In the end, Ron Brown's fate probably rests with that grand jury in Florida. If there is no substantiation of the charges against him, the whole brouhaha probably will be forgotten. Meanwhile, however, there is this ritual to be played out.