WASHINGTON — The Senate Ethics Committee's long-quiet investigation of sexual harassment allegations and other charges against Sen. Bob Packwood is reawakening even as the Oregon Republican stands on the threshold of new influence on Capitol Hill.
After months of delay because of Packwood's legal challenges, committee investigators finally have started to receive "a good bit" of the critical evidence that they have been seeking: abridged versions of Packwood's personal diaries, according to a source close to the case.
By agreement of both sides in the dispute, former federal Judge Kenneth W. Starr, who now is looking into President Clinton's role in an Ozarks land deal as Whitewater independent counsel, has spent months screening the diaries, tape cassettes that Packwood dictated at the end of each day. The committee has subpoenaed Packwood's diaries from late 1989 through most of last year.
Starr's task, which the source said is nearly complete, has been to review tape portions that Packwood's lawyers claim should be withheld from the committee on grounds that they are private family topics or matters involving attorney-client and physician-patient confidentiality. Starr is then to provide appropriate material to Senate investigators.
"He has turned over a good bit of material to the committee," the source said.
Victor Baird, the panel's chief counsel, declined to confirm the source's statement. He said only that "during the remainder of this year" the committee will review all tapes that are turned over in hopes of preparing a preliminary report for its members soon after Congress convenes in January.
The committee also hopes to resume questioning Packwood under oath by the end of 1994, Baird said.
That closed-door questioning was suspended last year pending the outcome of the dispute over Packwood's diaries. Packwood filed a series of court challenges to Senate subpoenas for the tape-recorded diaries and related transcripts, starting a months-long legal battle that ended last March when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist upheld lower court rulings that the diaries must be surrendered.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is scheduled to become chairman of the Ethics Committee in January, and other leading Republican senators said that no effort would be made to prevent Packwood from assuming the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, on which he is now ranking GOP member. As chairman, Packwood would play a major role in any legislation dealing with health care, welfare reform or taxes.
McConnell explained through a spokesperson that forcing Packwood to forgo the chairmanship until the ethics inquiry is complete "would be contrary to the past practice of the Senate," where majority party members with seniority traditionally head committees.
Starr's appointment in the case, approved by the federal court last spring, preceded his being named last August to direct the unrelated, independent investigation into the investment in Whitewater Development Corp. of the President and his wife, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, while Clinton was governor of Arkansas.
During the 20-months-long ethics investigation, about 30 women have accused Packwood of making unwanted sexual advances, including some who claimed that he touched or kissed them against their will. Several were Senate employees.
There has been speculation that Packwood's diaries may shed the most light on related matters that the ethics panel is examining, including his alleged efforts to intimidate and discredit his accusers.
In addition, the diaries are considered crucial in the panel's investigation of job offers that businessmen and lobbyists allegedly made to the senator's estranged wife while the Packwoods were going through a divorce and while his alimony payments were being determined. Another central issue is whether the senator tampered with the diary tapes after learning last year that a subpoena from the committee was imminent.
Indications of tampering came from a former secretary of Packwood's who had transcribed his tapes for many years. The former employee told committee investigators last year that some tapes and transcripts being sought in the case had been altered.
Altering subpoenaed material, if provable, could open Packwood to the possibility of criminal prosecution by the Justice Department for obstruction of justice.
In defending Packwood's right to a chairmanship, McConnell and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who is expected to become majority leader in the new Congress, both noted that Democratic Sens. Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan and John Glenn of Ohio were permitted to keep their chairmanships of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and Governmental Affairs committees, respectively, during the Ethics Committee's 1991 investigation of their relationship with Charles H. Keating Jr., a savings and loan owner since jailed for defrauding investors.
In that case, after months of public hearings, the ethics panel severely chastised Riegle and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and mildly criticized Glenn and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)--all on grounds that they had accepted political contributions from Keating while intervening in a federal bank board investigation of his firm, Lincoln Savings & Loan Assn.
Former Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) received a harsh reprimand in the same case.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), a veteran member of the Finance Committee, said that he, too, will support Packwood's elevation to the chairmanship. Roth said that he sees no move by Republicans to block Packwood's ascendancy.