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Packwood Case Raises New Issue: Is Honesty Required of Politicians?

SHOULD lying to the voters get a politician sacked?

Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon is wrestling with 250 voters back home who say that during last year's elections, he lied to them about charges of sexual misconduct. Now those Oregonians want Senator Packwood thrown out of Congress.

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Katherine Meyer, an attorney working to oust the senator, says the people of Oregon are convinced that "Mr. Packwood stole the ... election" by misleading voters.

James Fitzpatrick, an attorney representing Packwood, denies that. He claims Ms. Meyer's group is trying to "turn elections into a giant game of `gotcha.' "

The two sides swapped charges this week at hearings before the Senate Rules Committee. Members of that committee, along with the Senate Ethics Committee, are exploring different aspects of the explosive case against the senator.

The Rules Committee will decide whether Packwood can be tossed out of the Senate if it can be proved that he lied to reporters from the Washington Post last October, and thereby changed the outcome of the election.

Some senators are clearly uncomfortable with that goal, however. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California says the charge of lying "clearly opens a Pandora's box," which could see almost every election contested.

The charges go back to the Post's efforts to explore accusations from 23 women that Packwood made unwanted sexual advances between 1969 and 1990. Shortly before election day, the Post reportedly confronted Packwood with the charges. He allegedly denied the charges, and the paper held its story.

The Post finally ran its story three weeks after the election. Packwood, who had won by a narrow margin, then admitted that he had done something that was "just plain wrong" and apologized.

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Meyer's group claims the senator lied to the Post to throw the news media off the story, and therefore committed fraud.

Mr. Fitzpatrick denies that Packwood lied. In support of his argument, he quotes an editor at the Post who says that prior to the election, the newspaper's story still needed "much more reporting, writing, and editing," and was not ready to publish.

The Packwood case will ultimately go to the Ethics Committee to determine possible punishment on the sexual misconduct charges. However, the Rules Committee's consideration of the charge of lying is a unique twist in the history of congressional discipline.

Earlier congressmen have lost their jobs for other kinds of deceit - vote fraud and bribery, for example. But lying to reporters is hardly an indictable offense in this city.

Political veterans admit they find this case confusing. Robert Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, says it's the job of the press and the public to ferret out lies before the election, not to punish them afterwards. "It would be a very unusual precedent if people are removed from office after a campaign for lying because they stretched the truth, or told outright falsehoods, during the campaign," Dr. Holsworth says.

"By that standard, one would have to remove a good percentage of the politicians, and one would spend a lot of time trying to distinguish between ignorance and falsehood."

Holsworth suggests there is a difference between what Packwood said, and what he did. His sexual behavior, if inappropriate, may be punished severely by the Senate, the professor says. But removing Packwood from office for lying to the press could be "inimical to democracy."

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, also has doubts. The real solution, he says, is to recall the senator, if the voters in Oregon are unhappy with him.

Oregon officials say their recall laws do not cover federal officials, but Dr. Sabato says unsympathetically: "That's life. We don't apply laws retroactively. Oregon could use this new event to pass new laws."

Nor is it feasible to determine whether Packwood would have lost without lying, Sabato says. "How can anyone decide whether a lie changed the outcome of this election? It's a terrible thicket."

Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, is more sympathetic to the Oregon voters, however.

"We may be entering a new era" in defining fraud, Mr. Hess says.

It's one thing to "lie" about policy - for example, by promising "no new taxes," or promising not to send troops into Vietnam. Those are serious changes in direction, but a politician must be allowed to change his mind.

It may be different, however, if a politician lies blatantly about his personal history, especially if the lie helps him win.

"This is a question of `What is fraud?' " Hess says. Buying votes is fraud. Stuffing ballot boxes is fraud. Both can be used to deny a senator his seat. So what about lying for votes? Hess asks.

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