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Evaluating Clinton Team's Ethics

Revolving-door issue, conflict-of-interest charges mar an otherwise strong record

LIKE virtually every other presidential candidate since Watergate, Bill Clinton campaigned on a pledge to clean up what many Americans view as Washington's Augean Stable of ethical messes.

So how has President Clinton done in meeting the pledges of candidate Clinton?

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Ethics-watchers generally give him high marks, with some caveats. His performance has been tarnished by the expected departure Dec. 15 of two top White House aides for lucrative jobs with lobbying firms. And brewing controversies - one over Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's dealings with Vietnam, the other over the Clintons' dealings with a bankrupt Arkansas savings and loan - eventually may become major scandals.

But there's been nothing during the past year to match the scandals involving high-level Reagan appointees in the 1980s, such as Iran-contra.

``Everyone who lives in a fishbowl like Washington is subjected to questions of various kinds,'' says Nelson Polsby, a presidential scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. ``So far it hasn't amounted to much. The administration is not a scandal-ridden institution.''

The lack of front-page headlines is in part a tribute to the administration's effort to improve government ethics.

But Suzanne Garment, author of a book on Washington scandals, says it's also an indication that the scandal machine - driven in the 1980s by the press corps and Democrats on Capitol Hill - is grinding to a halt. Ms. Garment, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, offers three reasons for the slowdown.

First, she says, ``People are tired of it.'' During the 1970s and 1980s, ``government was slowed down by scandals, and there is a general sense that we don't want it any more.''

The second reason, she says, is ``more partisan'' - and one that White House aides, remembering the pounding their candidate took in last year's campaign, would dispute. ``The Democrats are now in power and many liberals in the press and Capitol Hill want to protect one of their own.''

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Third, she cites the absence of any independent counsel digging into the administration's affairs. The law authorizing the appointment of these outside investigators, who were active from the Carter to the Bush presidencies, expired last year. The Senate has passed a new independent-counsel law, but the House is balking.

That leaves the news media and Hill Republicans as the only bloodhounds sniffing the administration's trail. Neither has been able to mobilize the resources of an independent-counsel investigation, such as Lawrence Walsh's seven-year, $35 million probe into the Iran-contra affair.

Still, President Clinton and his aides have had their share of run-ins with Washington's self-appointed ethics police - mainly journalists, talk-show hosts, and denizens of Capitol Hill.

The administration was only days old when it created a new term - ``a Zoe Baird problem'' - for the capital's lexicon. Ms. Baird, the president's first pick for attorney general, was forced to withdraw after it emerged that she had hired two illegal aliens as domestic help.

Next in line for the post was Kimba Wood, who also had to step aside even though, unlike Baird, she had hired an undocumented worker before it was illegal to do so.

It's unclear whether ``a Zoe Baird problem'' will be a permanent disqualifier for federal office or whether - like Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s admission of youthful marijuana smoking - it will soon be forgotten in favor of other concerns.

At any rate, says Andrew Carroll of the watchdog group Public Citizen, ``Zoe Baird's situation didn't show a lapse of ethics. It was a gap between what Washington and the rest of the country thought was important.''

The next ethics flap for the administration rated even lower on the scandal meter. A federal court, in response to a lawsuit by conservative groups, found the health-care task force headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton to be in violation of open-meeting laws.

BUT the ruling did not have a significant impact on either the task force's work or on the administration's public image.

``Travelgate'' was more damaging. The affair began on May 19 when the White House fired all seven employees in its travel office and announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating financial improprieties. Catherine Cornelius, a distant cousin of the president, and two other political appointees replaced the career travel-office staff.

Before long, however, the White House was forced to back off its original allegations and admit that there was no evidence of misconduct against five of the seven employees. To avoid the appearance of nepotism, Ms. Cornelius was reassigned and career employees were brought in to run the agency. Five of the original employees have been offered comparable jobs elsewhere in government, while Congress has voted to pay $150,000 for their legal expenses.

Even Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who is an ally of the administration, calls this a ``combination of stupidity and ethical insensitivity'' that was the White House's most serious misstep. ``I would have favored an independent-counsel investigation of the travel office,'' he says in an interview. ``And I believe we should do more to make whole the people who were hurt.''

These days, Republicans on Capitol Hill are calling for special prosecutors - unlike independent counsels, they are appointed by the attorney general - to look into two other cases. The first concerns Commerce Secretary Brown, a former lawyer-lobbyist. Red flags have been raised about him since his appointment. During the inauguration, for instance, Clinton forced him to cancel a $10,000-a-plate party being thrown in his honor by major corporations.

Since then, Brown has been dogged by allegations that he solicited $700,000 from the Vietnamese government to help normalize relations with the United States. The secretary adamantly denies the charges, and no proof has been forthcoming. But Justice Department investigators, a federal grand jury, and GOP Hill staff continue to look into the charges.

The other pending case may involve the Clintons personally. James McDougal, a prominent Arkansas businessman, is under federal investigation for fraud in connection with the collapse of two of his businesses, Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan and Whitewater Development Corp. Among other concerns, investigators are said to be probing whether Mr. McDougal improperly helped to finance Clinton's 1984 gubernatorial campaign.

The fallout from the Vietnam and Arkansas cases won't be known for a while. In the meanwhile, another ethics flap has overtaken the White House: the departure of chief administration lobbyist Howard Paster and deputy chief of staff Roy Neel.

Mr. Paster will become chairman and chief executive of Hill & Knowlton, a public-relations and lobbying monolith, while Mr. Neel will lead the United States Telephone Association, a trade group. Both men say they will not violate the administration's tough rule against lobbying their former colleagues for five years. But critics charge their new jobs violate the spirit of Clinton's edict to end journeys ``from public service to private enrichment.''

``It's very disappointing that the promise of closing the revolving door isn't being met,'' says Clayton Mulford, general counsel of Ross Perot's United We Stand America Inc. ``The administration is sending the message that the door is still open.''

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