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By the time the House ethics committee formally reports on its long investigation of Speaker Jim Wright, the step will come as a distinct anti-climax.

For many days now, Washington has been awash with authoritative-sounding leaks on the committee's findings and none of them provide any comfort to the powerful Texas Democrat.The main thrust of the word out of Washington is that the ethics committee has concluded, on the basis of strong bipartisan votes, that Wright improperly accepted gifts from friends who had an interest in legislation over which Wright had some influence and that he tried to use book sales to evade limits on outside income.

In response, Wright has been publicly proclaiming that he did not knowingly or intentionally break House rules. The key words, of course, are "knowingly" and "intentionally." And that's a particularly lame defense on the part of a man who ought to know better by virtue of his key position as second in line to the president and his 34 years in Congress.

By his own admission, Wright has acknowledged at least one misstep. In 1984 he went along with a deal with Southwest Texas State University, which wanted to give him a $3,000 fee for a speech - $1,000 more than the maximum allowed by House rules. Instead, the school bought more than 500 copies of Wright's book, "Reflections of a Public Man," for $3,000. This enabled Wright to avoid the House's limit on outside fees and pocket the full $3,000.

That's just one episode involving this book, from which Wright is said to have received a total of some $55,000 in royalties from sales - often to special interest groups. What's more, an unusual arrangement with the publisher enabled Wright to pocket much more generous royalties than those earned even by best-selling authors.

Anyway, the next step in the 10-month, $1.5 million investigation of Wright is for the House ethics committee to issue a formal statement of the allegations against him, a move expected in the next few days. The speaker then will have 21 days to present rebuttals and counter-arguments before the committee determines whether to call a disciplinary hearing to decide if sanctions are warranted. Sanctions can range from a simple reprimand to expulsion from the House.

Even if Wright ultimately turns out to be guilty of nothing worse than bad judgment, he still will have suffered painful damage. Bad judgment regarding his own dealings cannot help but cast doubt on his judgment when it comes to the Speaker's helping to run Congress.

Moreover, government leaders need to avoid not only wrongdoing itself but even the appearance of it. If a top public servant looks like he or she is getting away with breaking the rules, that servant can lose the public confidence it takes to govern effectively. And a seemingly bad example can tempt others to emulate it.

Under the circumstances, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Jim Wright has become a liability to the Democratic Party and an embarrassment to the country in general. The least he should do is to step down as House Speaker.

Meanwhile, other public servants ought to start re-examining their own conduct - particularly as it involves outside income and their associates - in light of the Wright case. With few exceptions, members of Congress compete for opportunities to get fees for breaking bread with special interest groups that want their votes. Scores of lawmakers vacation at sumptuous resorts as guests of many of those same interests.

Instead of striving to see how far they can bend the rules without breaking them, this nation's public servants need to start competing in terms of improving both their conduct and the rules that guide it. Indeed, the general principle should be that the higher the office is, the higher the ethical standards should be. With greater visibility and impact should come greater responsibility.