WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Packwood, under investigation for more than two years over alleged sexual misconduct, said yesterday that he wants public hearings on the complaints against him and a "public cross-examination" of his female accusers.
The surprise reversal by the Oregon Republican intensifies the spotlight on a controversy many senators hoped would just go away. It creates the possibility of another embarrassing spectacle for the Senate, akin to the 1991 hearings over alleged sexual harassment involving law professor Anita Hill and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Earlier this month, Senate Democrats, led by California Sen. Barbara Boxer, demanded a public airing of the charges against Mr. Packwood. On a largely party-line 52-48 vote, the Senate rejected her request.
L Mr. Packwood's switch means hearings are now almost certain.
The National Organization for Women called Mr. Packwood's announcement "a political act of desperation by a desperate man."
He said he changed his mind because Ms. Boxer and the Democrats were accusing the male-dominated Senate and its Republican majority of covering up charges by women.
Nineteen women have complained that Mr. Packwood made crude advances toward them since 1969. Many said they were surprised when the senator grabbed them and kissed them.
"It was a dangerous day when Senator Boxer politicized the ethics process," Mr. Packwood said in a statement.
Senate Republican aides say Ms. Boxer's strong attack has stiffened the backs of key Republicans. Ethics Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for example, recently suggested that the panel perhaps should hold hearings on the 1969 incident in which a female former Senate staffer drowned when Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts drove his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island.
Mr. Packwood's announcement concludes a week in which he and a new team of lawyers waged an aggressive campaign to raise doubts about some of his accusers, and to portray his past conduct as merely occasional clumsy gropings by a normally reserved man.
He and his supporters complained about what they say is one-sided news coverage that repeats the allegations without investigating "discrepancies" in their accounts.
On Wednesday, Charles and Jeanette Slepian, a husband and wife team of Portland, Ore., lawyers, filed four depositions with the Ethics Committee undercutting a complaint filed by Gena Hutton, a former campaign volunteer from Eugene.
Ms. Hutton has alleged that in 1980, Mr. Packwood grabbed her in a parking lot after a meeting, forcibly kissed her and suggested they go to a motel. Shaken by the incident, she said, she had nothing more to do with the senator. Recently, she spoke at a Portland news conference urging the Senate to take strong action against Mr. Packwood.
But in one deposition, John R. Morrison, a real estate developer now living in Gig Harbor, Wash., said he worked with Ms. Hutton as a volunteer during the 1980 campaign and observed her locking arms with Mr. Packwood at private dinners.
In three other depositions, former campaign volunteers said Ms. Hutton was an active participant in later Packwood campaigns through 1986.
"We will be filing other depositions like these," Charles Slepian said. "You will be amazed at how many people are coming forward and saying, 'Look, I know the senator and the individual who made the allegation, and it didn't happen like that.' We will raise questions about motivation and credibility."
Hearings will force these women, some of whom have kept their names confidential, to tell their stories in public and to be questioned by his lawyers, Mr. Packwood said.
His attack on his accusers is at least his third strategy for countering the complaints, which became public in December 1992. At first, he apologized for "terribly offensive" conduct toward women. Later, he blamed "binge drinking" and said he had "no memory" of several of his accusers.
Before his reversal on the issue of open hearings, the Senate Ethics Committee had been expected to meet in September and recommend a punishment for the senator.
Sanctions imposed by the committee would be more political than legal. The Senate has not expelled a member since the Civil War. Seven have been censured, and that stain usually ends a senator's career.