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2 UTAHNS FACE FLAK OVER CHECK SCANDAL

The House can bank on continued casualties this election year from its bad-check scandal - and two Utah members will likely bounce into its flak for vastly different reasons.

One is Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah - who is running for the Senate. His opponents will surely attack his overdrafts at the House bank and how he had to increase his estimates of them from "four or five" to "20 to 30 in one year" plus acknowledging that more are likely from other years.The other is Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who ironically says he never bounced a check anywhere in his life. His "reward" for such clean records was helping head the House's investigation into its scandal-closed bank.

It was a thankless job and brought attacks for either being too soft on bad-check writers or too tough.

Utah's third member, Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, says he bounced no checks - and seems to have avoided any taint from the scandal.

Hansen and the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct - where he is the ranking Republican - followed orders in a House resolution to identify members who "routinely and repeatedly" abused the bank with overdrafts. But the orders created a political minefield.

Trouble came when the committee defined "routinely and repeatedly" to mean only those members who wrote overdrafts for more than the take-home amount of their next paycheck and did so for more than 20 percent of the months they had accounts.

Critics charged that left holes large enough to hide a herd of elephants (or Democratic donkeys). Rep. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., for example, noted the formula would have allowed a member to overdraft his account more than $5,000 a month for seven of the the 39 months audited without being termed an abuser. "It doesn't pass the smell test," he said.

Hansen and others tried to defend their action by explaining that the House "bank" was really just an office to disburse paychecks that also gave members checking accounts. It considered overdrafts as a draw on the next month's salary. It did not consider overdrafts serious - or even notify members about them - until they exceeded the next month's take-home pay.

It also often failed to deposit members' paychecks on time - thus creating many inadvertent overdrafts. And its records were so poor that it took months to reconstruct the daily account balances of just the 66 suspected biggest check overdrafters.

The bank also didn't actually bounce many checks. It covered most overdrafts, and those exceeding a member's next paycheck were set aside until the member made deposits to cover them. But members were not charged for such overdraft protection - for which any other bank would charge.

While no taxpayer money was endangered, Rep. Craig James, R-Fla., noted the bank was subsidized by free rent in the Capitol and that federal taxpayers paid the bank's employees - which likely helped it afford to offer members privileges other banks could not.

Bunning and three other Republicans on the ethics committee opposed its plan to identify only the 24 worst abusers and called for disclosure of all bad-check writers instead. Meanwhile, Hansen voted with the 10-4 majority, saying he too originally pushed for full disclosure but backed the committee's plan as the best compromise available.

That brought attacks from the press and public saying the plan was too soft and full disclosure would be better. When it became apparent that full disclosure would be forced, many upset House members blamed the committee for not finding a way to shield them from being smeared with the worst abusers.

Owens' problems began when he often didn't reconcile his bank account for months because he was busy, and he depended on its overdraft protection.

He was the first House member to admit making overdrafts. He said he remembered "four or five" times that the bank called and asked him to make deposits. Later, it was disclosed that the bank made such calls only when members overdrafted more than their next expected check - which Owens apparently did.

That is not as bad, apparently, as the worst abusers who bounced hundreds of checks for tens of thousands of dollars for months. Still, Owens can expect his opponents to pummel him on the matter.

The firestorm caused for members who didn't bounce checks (like Hansen) and those who did (like Owens) shows the House bank was an equal opportunity lender - of trouble.