WASHINGTON — Former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), looking tanned and relaxed less than two weeks after resigning from Congress, blamed the media Tuesday for aggravating the furor over congressional ethics and said that House members are more honest than they were 25 years ago.
In a breakfast meeting with reporters, the former House majority whip asserted that even though members of Congress are required to disclose the sources of all campaign contributions and speaking fees, the press "either doesn't have an institutional memory of what's gone on for 25 years or just (wants) to be total cynics on the system.
"I'm intrigued with certain members of the press who, in effect, take the very thing that is helping correct the system . . . and (then) say the system is more corrupt," said Coelho, who quit the Democratic leadership's third-ranking position on June 15 amid revelations that he had not reported details of a profitable 1986 junk bond transaction.
Shortly before his resignation, Coelho, 47, was facing a preliminary criminal investigation by the Justice Deptartment as well as a House Ethics Committee inquiry.
Coelho reiterated Tuesday that his failure to report a $50,000 loan from Columbia Savings & Loan Assn., whose chief executive helped arrange his purchase of a $100,000 junk bond, was a "mistake," but one for which he accepted full responsibility.
Coelho, who earned a $6,882 profit on the transaction in 1986, took advantage of a tax break to which he was not entitled when he sold the bond at a profit, and probably owes at least a few hundred dollars in unreported back taxes, according to his lawyer.
Coelho said the incident showed that Congress has become more accountable, despite heightened press scrutiny of elected officials.
"When I came here 24 years ago, cash flowed freely," Coelho said. "If you wanted certain things done, you handled it with cash." Politicians "didn't have to disclose anything and they got away with everything. And you people (the press) didn't have anything to go on. And the fact that they now have to disclose . . . is giving you more ammunition to hit them on."
Coelho conceded that Congress needs to pass major reforms, including limits on contributions and the elimination of honorariums--or speaking fees. But he denied that members are beholden to the special interests who inundate them with contributions.
Coelho indicated he is considering several job offers, including some in the broadcast media, and that he will make a decision by September. He predicted that his transition to private life will be easy, but he stiffened when reporters asked him who paid for the limousine that drove him to the hotel breakfast meeting.
"He (Coelho) is in the private sector now," a former aide said. "He has a right to privacy."