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ELECTIONS / CONGRESSIONAL RACES : Pair Get Letters of Exoneration in Bank Scandal : Federal prosecutor tells Reps. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman they have been cleared of any House overdraft violations.

October 27, 1992|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said Monday that they have received letters clearing them of possible criminal violations regarding the scandal-plagued House bank.

The so-called "exoneration letters"--which Berman received Monday and Waxman Oct. 14--arrived after federal prosecutor Malcolm R. Wilkey pored over the lawmakers' bank records as well as those of many of their colleagues.

Waxman had 434 overdrafts and Berman had 67 during a 39-month period before the bank was closed last October amid intense criticism of its slipshod management and accounting.

The bank operated much like a financial cooperative. Overdrawn checks, which were permitted, were covered by the deposits of other lawmakers. The bank did not provide interest on accounts but did not penalize members for overdrafts either. Personnel costs to administer the facility were more than $700,000 a year, according to the General Accounting Office.

Neither Waxman nor Berman was included in the list of 22 current and former members deemed "abusers" after a House Ethics Committee investigation. These lawmakers had overdrafts exceeding their next month's salary in at least 20% of the 39 months reviewed.

Atty. Gen. William P. Barr named Wilkey, a retired federal appeals court judge, as special counsel last March to determine "whether there is any individual wrongdoing which requires further action."

Some lawyers said at the time that the inquiry would probably examine whether lawmakers or bank personnel engaged in tax evasion, fraud or campaign finance violations.

Nationally, all but 29 of the 355 House members who wrote one or more check overdrafts have received letters from Wilkey, according to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. Berman and Waxman were the last of the San Fernando Valley area lawmakers to hear from the prosecutor.

Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), who had five overdrafts, received the one-page form letter when Wilkey initially began informing lawmakers in early September. Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) did not write any checks with insufficient funds.

The letter notified the members that Wilkey had completed a review of their account and "concluded that there is no basis for pursuing a further inquiry regarding possible criminal violations concerning your account."

In an interview, Berman said, "I expected it and I'm glad to have it."

Unlike some of his colleagues who have suggested that Wilkey, a Republican, is on a partisan fishing expedition, Berman declined to criticize the prosecutor.

"We led ourselves down this road by participating in a House institution which should not have been run that way," he said, echoing the contrition he expressed earlier this year.

Waxman said: "This closes an unpleasant chapter of the House bank, as far as I am concerned. I regretted that we ever had a House bank, and I never thought I did anything in violation of the rules or laws in operating consistent with the overdraft protections that the House offered members of Congress."

Waxman, however, was critical of Wilkey's handling of the inquiry.

"I certainly think they should have handled this in a better way rather than leave people hanging" as Election Day approached, he said. "They should have waited until they had whatever conclusions they had about the members so that the press would not draw any implications about the other members who did not get the letters."

He said many colleagues seeking reelection Nov. 3 "are being attacked in their districts for not getting a letter when they should not have been attacked."

Melissa Burns, a spokeswoman for Wilkey, said "there is priority being given to members who have races" for reelection. She added, "Some accounts are more voluminous and complex."

Burns reiterated Monday that letters clearing lawmakers are still going out as the prosecutor's office concludes reviews of additional records.

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