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It's the Public Trust That Meese Has Lost : Until Allegations Against Him Are Set Aside, He Should Step Aside

February 11, 1988|PATRICK LEAHY | Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee

Like any other American, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III is innocent until proved guilty. As a former prosecutor, I know the danger of trying a man based on press reports, speculation or innuendo. But one thing has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt over and over again: The President's top law-enforcement officer is undermining the confidence that the American people have in their government.

Law and order start at the top. Slogans and tough talk about stopping crime mean little after an endless barrage of accusations against one of the President's most senior advisers. As the nation's chief law-enforcement officer, the attorney general must symbolize the values embodied in our criminal-justice system.

Since Meese cannot live up to that standard until the independent counsels determine that he is no longer a suspect in their criminal investigations, I suggest that he step aside.

In 1984 and '85, Meese's nomination came before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the "advice and consent" process. At that time I discussed with him the attorney general's role in American society. I told him that, except for the President, no one in the nation does more through action--or inaction--to set the moral tone of governance. I told him that while the Supreme Court has the last word on what our laws mean, the attorney general often has the first word. I also noted that the attorney general sets legal policies for government and, by example, moral and political policies as well.

Meese knew then what the Senate and the American people expected. Now the attorney general is seen as unable to fight crime at the highest levels of government. This not only diminishes respect for law at every level of society; it also fails the American people.

Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the attorney general is responsible for the prosecuting of Americans who try to bribe foreign officials. Yet recent press reports indicate that Meese did not act when he received a memorandum proposing just that type of activity. What remains a mystery is why that memo did not generate a criminal investigation. Meese cannot expect the American people to believe the same old excuses--that this is just another case of inattention to detail, ignorance of the content of what is in his files, or inability to remember recent events. One who is entrusted with that much responsibility cannot continually fall back on those excuses.

Through the Ethics in Government Act, Meese is responsible for overseeing the law designed to fight influence-peddling. Yet he and his closest associates are continually embroiled in embarrassing allegations of impropriety. There is a laundry list of more than 100 instances in which Reagan Administration officials have been accused or convicted of unethical behavior. I cannot determine guilt or innocence in those cases. But I know that the criminal-justice system cannot function with that symbol at the top.

The attorney general is supposed to set the standard. It is not enough to hear an independent counsel conclude that there is insufficient evidence that the attorney general had "knowingly participated in criminal activity." To be an attorney general, you should be able to say more than that you have not been indicted.

During Meese's confirmation hearing, members of the Judiciary Committee reminded him that he had to be independent of the President in order to discharge the duties of the attorney general. The American people are the first client of the first lawyer in the land, and we wanted to be sure that he knew it.

Elliot Richardson understood the relationship between the attorney general, the President and the people. When President Richard M. Nixon ordered him to dismiss Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Richardson resigned. As attorney general, he had taken an oath to defend the Constitution. As attorney general, Richardson committed himself to ensuring the rule of law. When he put those values above any political loyalties, he acted in the best interest of his clients, the American people. And the four-time Cabinet secretary recently spoke for us all once again when he remarked, "For God's sake, aren't we entitled to hope that the next Administration will be a little less sleazy?"

It appears to me that Meese does not have the public trust. As long as his name is associated with independent counsels' investigations, the American people cannot have confidence in their No. 1 lawyer.

We know that President Reagan will not turn his back on an old friend and ask Meese to resign. Now it is time for Meese to show the same loyalty. By remaining in office, he arouses suspicion toward the Administration and handcuffs the Justice Department. The greatest service that he could bestow on his friend the President, and on the American people, is to step aside until these allegations are set aside.

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