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Special Responsibility

THE special counsel appointed to investigate the House banking scandal, former US judge Malcolm Wilkey, reportedly was named because of his experience, judicious temperament, and ability to set aside partisanship. Now that members of the House have consented to turn over to him records of their defunct bank, Judge Wilkey must live up to his reputation.

After the members of the House voted in March to disclose the names of all 355 current and past members who wrote overdrafts on their accounts during a 39-month period between 1988 and 1991, Speaker Tom Foley pronounced the affair over.

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Some of the worst "offenders" will pay the ultimate political price in November (and a number of members have retired rather than face voter wrath over the banking caper). Those whose lapses had been minor, and especially members who had no overdrafts during the period, believed that for them, at least, the case was firmly closed.

But then Judge Wilkey issued his subpoena. He was designated by Attorney General William Barr to assess any evidence of criminal conduct. Wilkey demanded all bank records for the period in question, including account information for the 170 House members who wrote no overdrafts.

Despite resistance by the House Democratic leadership - which contended that the broad subpoena violated separation-of-powers principles and the privacy of innocent members - a majority voted last week to comply with the subpoena. Noncompliance would simply have been too hard to explain back home.

Wilkey's request is not, as some members grumbled, merely a fishing expedition. If illegal check kiting occurred, the full records of members' deposits and withdrawals may be necessary for the special counsel's team to piece together the puzzle. If a small number of members in fact engaged in criminal financial manipulation using their colleagues' money, the wrongdoers should be called to account.

But now Wilkey holds in his hands extremely personal information about the disbursements - and therefore the lifestyles and family matters - of every member of the House of Representatives. He must protect the confidentiality of that information with utmost care, and he should try to develop a framework of review that excludes as much of that information as possible from examination even by his own investigators.

Many Democratic members seem resigned that embarrassing information will be leaked to the press by a Republican Justice Department in an election year. But that needn't be so, even in porous Washington.

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