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Hard Days For Lame Ducklings : Legal Difficulties

January 10, 1988|Lincoln Caplan | Lincoln Caplan, a writer for the New Yorker, is author of "The Tenth Justice: The Solicitor General and the Rule of Law" (Knopf)

WASHINGTON — Edwin Meese III is an impresario of corruption: of the old-fashioned kind--misuse of influence and office; of ideas at the heart of constitutional law, and of the process by which laws are made, interpreted and enforced. Since he came to Washington in 1981 as Ronald Reagan's longtime friend and counselor, Meese has regularly eschewed high legal standards in conducting his personal business affairs and matters of state.

When backed into a corner, Meese has often explained misdeeds as the product of bumbling and disorganization rather than venality. He has presented himself as a victim of circumstances--as in the Wedtech scandal where his judgment and financial dealings have been called into question. He has claimed lapses of memory, as during the Iran-Contra hearings when he was asked about his actions and replied, "I don't recall," or something like it, 187 times. He has also eschewed truth. To cite a simple case, he claimed one of his incendiary statements that now rings with irony ("You don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime") was misquoted though it came from the transcript of a tape-recorded interview.

Until last fall, the political resilience of the President, Meese's closeness to him and the backing of Reaganites helped the attorney general survive doubts about his judgment and integrity. Meese's role in the effort to get a Reagan Supreme Court nominee approved changed that. Displaying the partisan judgment from which he recovered in the past (as in 1982, when he backed the Administration's position favoring tax exemptions for segregated schools, and suffered an embarrassing Supreme Court defeat), Meese insisted on presenting the nomination of Robert H. Bork in the most divisive terms. Then he engineered the hasty selection of Douglas H. Ginsburg as a replacement. He twice opposed the appointment of Anthony M. Kennedy--advocated as the most sensible choice from the start by White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. These actions convinced influential conservatives that Meese had become a liability.

Meese's bad political judgment rises from the same mix of bullheadedness and carelessness that led to his taint of corruption. The latter has aggravated doubts about his ability to perform the duties of attorney general, among Justice Department officials as well as others.

The week before Christmas, Meese's longtime friend E. Robert Wallach and two associates were indicted for fraud, racketeering and conspiracy in the Wedtech scandal--where a small business allegedly used White House contacts to gain major government contracts. Not long before, the attorney general testified at one of two grand juries in Washington--as he has done during 11 sessions in recent months--to tell about his knowledge of and part in the Wedtech and Iran-Contra affairs.

A statement by Meese's attorney, citing the decision of the Wedtech independent counsel not to prosecute the attorney general, was balanced by one from the independent counsel, stressing that his was "an interim and not a final decision."

The Wedtech affair has already led to the guilty pleas of four executives, who admitted stealing $2 million from the firm and bribing federal, state and local officials; the conviction of two Maryland politicians for accepting $50,000 to stop a congressional investigation; the indictment of a New York congressman for racketeering; the indictment of former White House adviser Lyn Nofziger on four counts of breaking federal ethics laws, and the involvement of a dozen other prominent people.

The nub of the Wedtech story is that the firm took advantage of White House contacts and no-bid contracts for minority businesses to turn a tiny South Bronx machine shop into a defense contractor with $100-million annual revenues. Meese admits that, while counselor to the President in 1982, he intervened at Wallach's request to help Wedtech win a $32-million Army contract. (The head of the Small Business Administration wouldn't grant the contract, so he was fired.) But Meese says he only did for Wedtech what he did for others, to assure a fair hearing.

Meese acknowledges that three years later he (and his wife) invested about $50,000 in a partnership run by W. Franklyn Chinn, who soon became a Wedtech director and was later indicted with Wallach.

But Meese claimed that he turned his investments over to Chinn only because Wallach advised him to, to fulfill a commitment made to Congress that others would handle his financial affairs. His violation of federal ethics rules (reported by the General Accounting Office) by not disclosing the partnership details was an oversight, Meese insists, and he says he knew nothing about Chinn's illegal investment of far more than Meese had handed over to him. Meese concedes that, in two year's time, his profit was $45,857, or about 90%, but he claims the partnership's dealings had nothing to do with his aid to Wedtech.

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