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Coelho Does It His Way

June 04, 1989|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — The sense of power and decisiveness that surrounded Tony Coelho's political life was never more apparent than when he departed it. He identified his problem and confronted its political consequences. He decided, himself, to make his break from the House. Then he announced the startling and surely traumatic decision to resign on his own terms.

That was the way Coelho (D-Merced) accomplished a meteoric rise into the House power structure, first as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and then as majority whip. The quintessential young man in a hurry, he operated with a palpable sense of self-confidence. In a House where there are few shrinking violets, he often seemed to maneuver like a driver at the Indianapolis 500 who was lapping the field.

Sometimes, as in his political fund-raising and occasionally outrageous rhetoric, he displayed an unhealthy measure of hubris about his ability to surmount any obstacle. In a sense, that should not be surprising for someone who put his life back together after it was thrown into disarray on his 22nd birthday, June 15, 1964. Precisely 25 years before the date he plans to resign from the House, he was prevented from entering the priesthood after learning he had epilepsy.

In contrast to Speaker Jim Wright, who sometimes left the impression that he was the only House member convinced of his own innocence, Coelho cut his line to power before most other lawmakers were aware of how serious were his ethical problems. His startling announcement that he will resign his House seat and his influential leadership post shocked the political community, which was ready to award Coelho the House majority leader position after the expected elevation of Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) to Speaker next Tuesday.

Coelho's achievements during a decade in the House were legendary, far more than those of lawmakers who have served three times as long. He probably did more than anyone else in the Democratic Party in the 1980s to shape and communicate its message. He raised money from sometimes hostile interest groups and revitalized the Democrats' moribund campaign committee, which had been light years behind its Republican counterpart, so that it could provide needed services to candidates. He was a skillful power broker of his party's diverse constituencies and a key lieutenant in Wright's array of legislative triumphs in 1987-88.

No less an opponent than House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)--whose ethics complaint triggered Wright's downfall--admired Coelho's skills, so much so that he said the GOP would never be able to take control of the House unless it studied his success. "Professionally, I have the sort of admiration of Tony Coelho that an opponent would have of (San Francisco 49ers' quarterback) Joe Montana," Gingrich said in March. "You watch him with awe."

What brought Coelho down was his decision to seek investment advice from Thomas Spiegel, boss of the high-flying Columbia Savings and Loan Assn. in Beverly Hills and a protege of the legendary Michael Milken of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. The aggressive political entrepreneur got caught short when he tried to bring a similar approach to the financial arena. His lawyer wrote to Coelho that he had failed to reveal, in the required financial-disclosure form, key details of Coelho's $100,000 junk-bond purchase in 1986.

The letter prompted further embarrassing questions: Whether Coelho had been given special treatment by Spiegel? Whether Coelho may have received a gift barred by House rules? (After extensive research, a National Journal investigation found no evidence that Coelho ever helped Spiegel on legislative or regulatory matters or that the two men were particularly close.)

Although Coelho and his attorney blamed his Merced accountant, Donald W. Ozenbaugh Jr., for some of the errors, Coelho accepted responsibility. Given previous financial indiscretions with his political committees, including a failure to disclose nearly $50,000 in services from a Texas savings-and-loan operator, Coelho had lost the "benefit of the doubt" so crucial to politicians' credibility.

In comments made over the years, Coelho had made clear to friends that he was ready to leave the House at a moment's notice if he felt a threat to his rapid rise up the leadership ladder. His willingness to cut his current ties won gratitude from many Democrats; they will not have to suffer as investigations disclose potential new problems with Coelho's finances.

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