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Judge's Fitness for Ethics Post Questioned

September 22, 1989|RONALD J. OSTROW | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A fundamentalist Baptist leader who was President Bush's choice to head the Office of Government Ethics may be eliminated from consideration because of unspecified ethics problems uncovered by an FBI background check, Administration officials confirmed Thursday.

Results of the background investigation of Paul Pressler, a Texas civil court judge who has championed a fundamentalist uprising within the Southern Baptist Convention, were forwarded to the White House earlier this week, Administration sources said.

Although officials declined to divulge details of the investigation, they said the findings are likely to cause the Administration to seek a new candidate for the sensitive post.

Pressler, who was in San Francisco Thursday night, could not be reached for comment.

The Office of Government Ethics was created under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, a post-Watergate reform measure. Its primary responsibility is to review financial disclosure statements filed by Administration officials and to determine if they raise ethical questions.

The FBI has been conducting its background check on Pressler since July, and one source familiar with the case said some of the most critical information was supplied by colleagues and subordinates of the Houston judge.

A recent account in a Texas newspaper said that Pressler critics, including moderate Southern Baptists who have been alienated by his fundamentalist crusade, presented allegations to the FBI accusing the judge of religious bigotry and official misconduct.

Pressler is considered the chief strategist of a fundamentalist movement that has bitterly divided the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination. The conservative faction he heads has gained control of the Convention by electing trustees to the boards of various agencies within the denomination.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the Harris County district attorney's office was looking into allegations that Pressler, a justice on the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston, misused county office equipment and staff for church-related business.

The newspaper quoted a court clerk who said Pressler had reimbursed the county for his use of office copying machines. The county allows private use of some public equipment as long as the cost is repaid by the user.

The Chronicle said Pressler had acknowledged using court secretaries to type church-related documents, but he told the newspaper that he had instructed them to do the work on their own time and had paid them for the work.

The judge also was accused of having improperly tape-recorded a phone conversation with a seminary student in Kentucky and of having attempted to get a Houston company to fire an attorney who had written a critical letter about Pressler to a Baptist newspaper, the Chronicle reported. Pressler denied both accusations.

Pressler has been an appeals court judge since 1978. Although he is considered a political conservative, he remained a Democrat until September, 1988, when he switched to the Republican Party.

Bush has attempted to forge an alliance with the fundamentalist Christian movement, which was a strong supporter of former President Ronald Reagan.

The Office of Government Ethics, which has 35 employees, is scheduled to become an independent agency on Oct. 1 under legislation passed last year by Congress.

The Administration's nominee for the position will be subject to Senate confirmation.

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