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The Packwood Case

IF United States Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon had hoped that charges of sexual harassment by 10 women last fall could be squelched or papered over in the Senate Ethics Committee, the coming forth of 13 more women with similar charges this month ought to end those hopes.

Given Senator Packwood's long support of women's rights, this case is particularly sad. Since the harassment charges were first made last Nov. 22 in the Washington Post, the Packwood case has become important not just because of sexual harassment charges against an elected official in high office, but also because it appears that the senator's entire ethical approach to the charges is at issue, touching deeply on questions of voter trust.

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In this sense, the Senate Ethics Committee must address a broad array of questions. Prior to the US Senate election Nov. 3, Packwood publicly denied he had harassed women. When the Post story ran three weeks later, the senator changed his tune somewhat, apologizing for "wrong" behavior. But his denials have involved withholding information from the public prior to an election, intimidation, and attempts to smear the women who spoke up.

Given the scope of the charges and the breach of public trust involved, the Ethics Committee must give due diligence to the Packwood case.

Sexual harassment is still being defined in the public mind. It is clearer to some people than to others, but careers and reputations ought not to be destroyed simply by "charges" of "harassment."

Moreover, in strict legal terms, harassment is punishable only if a job or career advancement is threatened or if an office atmosphere becomes hostile to the victim. In Packwood's case, 23 women complained that between 1969 and the late 1980s they were kissed, fondled, or otherwise subjected to sexual advances. In several cases women said that after repeated episodes, they found work elsewhere.

The Senate Ethics Committee ought to fully investigate and air the charges of these women - and allow cross-examination. Under the circumstances, however, it may be more honorable for Packwood to do what many Oregon voters have asked for: to resign.

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