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Reagan Administration Plagued With Ethical Problems

December 19, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Democrats call it ″the sleaze factor″ in the Reagan administration.

Whitney North Seymour, the Republican who prosecuted and convicted former White House aide Michael Deaver, was only slightly more polite. ″Unless the attitudes of government leaders change,″ he said, ″there is little that prosecutors can do except put a thumb in the dike.″

No matter how you describe it, this is an administration plagued with ethical problems, large and small.

They range all over the lot: officials abusing civil service rules or misspending government money for private travel; a man accused of conspiring to end enforcement actions against a client represented by his brother; a department head misusing chauffeured government limousines; conflicts of interest; using government personnel for private business.

That doesn’t even include the Iran-Contra affair, in which the president’s former national security adviser and a top aide have been targeted by a criminal investigation.

The definition of ethics is unambiguous. It is the discipline dealing with what is good and bad or right and wrong or with moral duty and obligation.

There hasn’t been a lot of that discipline in the nation’s capital, according to Seymour, the prosecutor who won the Deaver conviction last week.

″Ethics in our nation’s capital should not depend upon the work of special prosecutors,″ he said. ″Ethics in government is a function of leadership, not of law enforcement.″

Even in the Watergate era, when a special prosecution force as well as high-powered committees in both houses of Congress were looking into scandal, only 11 former administration or Nixon re-election committee aides went to prison.

By contrast, five Reagan administration officials have been convicted, four former White House aides and Attorney General Edwin Meese III are under investigation; and six first-rank officials resigned following questions about their ethics, although they never were convicted of any crime.

The House Subcommittee on Civil Service, chaired by Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., has compiled an index that lists 225 Reagan administration personnel or nominees who have been the subject of allegations of ethical infractions. The figure has been disputed. Most were never charged with any wrongdoing, although some nominees didn’t get jobs after the alleged transgressions came to light.

And some of the most publicized allegations didn’t stick. In the case of former NASA administrator James Beggs, the government admitted it was wrong to bring fraud charges and withdrew them. Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan resigned when he was accused of falsifying business bills, then was acquitted at trial.

But the welter of charges reinforces a perception that hardly a day goes by without some whiff of scandal in the Reagan administration.

Consider last Wednesday: While a jury pronounced Deaver guilty of three counts of lying under oath, another Reagan friend, Lyn Nofziger, was at the defense table in another courtroom down the hall. He is charged with influence-peddling and is expected to go on trial next month.

One floor higher, Meese was testifying for the fifth time before the Iran- Contra grand jury. And earlier that day, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams testified before the same panel.

Seymour, a former federal prosecutor who handled the Pentagon Papers case in New York, is a Republican but he is willing to criticize the ethics of the Republican Reagan administration.

After Deaver’s conviction, the president said nothing critical of Deaver’s conduct, calling him a long-time friend. That disturbed Seymour.

″I think he really let the country down; that was not the right message for the American people.″

Seymour said Reagan should either have kept quiet ″or at least said something about the fact that the jury system shows that this is still a country where everyone is treated the same.″

Seymour, whose job was created by the Ethics in Government Act, sent a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees asking that loopholes be closed. He said there is too little concern in Washington about ethics in government.

Many departures from plush government jobs tend to get lost in the publicity accorded a few cases, like those of Meese, Deaver and Donovan.

Here is a sampling of lesser-known cases where the official involved either was fired or resigned:

-The chief of staff of the Department of Labor accused of a conflict of interest allegedly involving a lobbyist’s boat.

-A regional chief of the Environmental Protection Agency who allegedly took questionable sick leave and used a government chauffeur to drive him to work.

-An assistant secretary for nuclear energy who allegedly kept an unauthorized multimillion dollar government fund to promote commercial nuclear power.

-The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned when charged with agency mismanagment, political manipulation and possible conflict of interest. She was appointed to another important job and resigned the day before she was sworn in after describing the job as ″a nothing- burger.″

-A top White House official who accepted a below-market loan for his Georgetown home and double-billed his travel expenses to the White House and the Republican National Committee.

The Iran-Contra affair is involved in the investigations of Meese, former National Security Council aide Oliver North and former national security advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter. Meese also is under investigation by an independent counsel for his alleged role in helping Wedtech Corp. gain a government contract.

Those who resigned government posts following questions about their ethics, although they were never charged with crimes, include Max Hugel, deputy director of operations at the CIA; Richard Allen, a former national security adviser; Anne Burford, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; Victor Thompson, president of Synthetic Fuels Corp.; J. Lynn Helms, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and Robert P. Nimmo, head of the Veterans Administration.

During the Reagan years, six independent counsels have conducted investigations under the Ethics in Government Act, a post-Watergate law passed in 1978.

Seymour was vocally upset by the testimony of Secretary of State George P. Shultz at the Deaver trial. Shultz praised Deaver’s honesty, but testified he was not familiar with the charges against the former White House aide.

″The problem is not caring,″ said Seymour. ″The fact that the secretary was willing to come testify in this trial without even reading the indictment is, I think, an indictment in itself.″