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Cabinet Follies: No Escape Once a Scandal is Declared

October 02, 1994|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — The good news for President Bill Clinton on the scandal front is that the noise of Haiti and the visit of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin have--for now--almost drowned out the persistent whispers of Whitewater. The bad news is that two of the President's Cabinet officers are under simultaneous criminal investigation--with the gossip predicting that they're not long for this political world.

This embarrassment comes at an awkward time. Clinton has just not-fired-but-begun-easing-out Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers; the candidate who promised an Administration that looked like America is ending up with a male inner circle.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet officials under investigation are Mike Espy, secretary of agriculture, who is accused of taking favors from business interests and misappropriating government travel funds; and Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, said to have lied to investigators during his confirmation process. They are two of the Cabinet's minority-group members. A third, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, was recently cleared of charges that he had improperly received money from a Vietnamese businessman.

Clinton came to office proclaiming his enthusiasm for this process of purifying government. By now he has doubtless decided that he'd settle for a little less public moralism and a little more sense of proportion. Yet, there is not much Clinton can do to stop these scandals from running their loud, protracted course.

When a political figure gets into trouble, there's no way for the public or journalists or other politicians to say, "You did something arrogant; pay back the money, accept your loss of clout, get on with your job," or declare, "You have acted stupidly, but you've already paid your penalty in public embarrassment."

Instead, the scandal system has only one gear. It insists on treating all official misbehavior as potentially criminal. If the wrongdoing is found not to be criminal, the politician who perpetrated it will call the result moral exoneration. Meanwhile, the whole process soaks up every piece of available political attention and energy.

We're doing it again. The Espy case is sleazy, while the Cisneros story is tragic. Yet, from what we know about them now, a full-dress criminal probe does not look like the right way to deal with either one.

Of the two at risk, Espy has the more conventional troubles. He was a Mississippi congressman before his appointment. He travels constantly and has what some call a frenetic operating style. He has not made a lot of friends in the Agriculture Department's bureaucracy.

In March, there appeared a story about how he had accepted various gifts from Tyson Foods, a Friend-of-Bill Arkansas company whose chicken-processing plants are inspected by the Agriculture Department. Then the list began to grow: Espy had gotten a basketball-game ticket from a cereal company. He gave extraordinary access to a friend who worked for a food conglomerate. His travel managed to include a stop in his home town about once a month and, for a while, the government paid to lease a Jeep that he left at the local airport. Once, it is said, he drove the Jeep back to Washington but charged the government for a return-flight ticket.

Apart from the alleged misuse of government funds, there have also been suggestions that Espy went easy on some he got goodies from: that he was not tough enough on poultry inspections and also supported a boondoggle of a program benefiting business friends.

No one says he threw an Agriculture Department decision in return for a bribe. But current law is clear in this area. Espy is a high Clinton Administration official under the Ethics in Government Act, and the attorney general must ask the courts to appoint an independent counsel.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has done her duty. Espy's independent counsel, attorney David C. Smaltz, seems like a fair-minded man. But he says he will run a suitably broad investigation, not limited to the public charges or to Espy himself. He notes that Espy paid back money to the government and corporations to erase the "appearance of impropriety"--but points out repayment does not erase criminal guilt.

Finally, Smaltz has noticed that the secretary might be subject to stricter criminal standards than other government officials, because of the special statute governing meat inspection.

So you can tell this one will take a long time, during which Espy will walk around with that special vulnerability to trouble that marks an official whose scandal-immune system has been breached.

The investigation of Cisneros will undoubtedly be shorter. In the late 1980s, when he was mayor of San Antonio, Tex., he left office after a scandal over his affair with fund-raiser Linda Medlar. Medlar's husband divorced her and, because of the affair, she could not get work in her field.

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