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SENATOR SHOWED NO MERCY AFTER DUCKING OWN WOES

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Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald Riegle, D-Mich., who once invoked a memory "disability" before the Senate Ethics Committee, can now brag about sacking someone accused of a graceful dodge.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman's resignation this week was the price he paid for misleading Congress about contacts between Treasury and the White House regarding the government's investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. Treasury aide Joshua Steiner memorialized the moment in his diary last February by describing how Altman had "gracefully ducked" committee questions about the contacts.During the grueling Senate hearings on Whitewater, Riegle afforded Altman little mercy.

Riegle ultimately spearheaded the dump-Altman movement. But he carried it off with all the moral authority of a defrocked priest. A review of Riegle's recent history tells the story:

Back in 1991, Riegle and four colleagues were hauled in front of the Senate Ethics Committee on charges of exerting improper influence on behalf of now-jailed savings and loan tycoon Charles Keating. Keating had been doling out campaign contributions to politicians who were willing to run interference with the federal regulators targeting his high-flying thrift.

Between January and April 1987, Riegle collected more than $77,000 in legal campaign contributions from Keating and his associates. Later on, Riegle had only faint recollections of those months milking the Keating connection.

Riegle had been resolutely clear that if "anybody ever tries to juxtapose fund-raising help with any request to do some specific action for them, I would view that as improper." But Keating Five prosecutor Robert S. Bennett un-earthed piles of evidence strongly disputing that claim.

Donald Riegle met Charles Keating on Jan. 28, 1987. Notes of the meeting taken by a Riegle aide show that Keating - who knew Riegle was in line to be the next chairman of the Senate Banking Committee - offered to raise up to $150,000 for Riegle's re-election campaign. At the time of the offer, Riegle was aware that Keating was feuding with government thrift regulators.

On March 6, 1987, Riegle met with Edwin Gray, then the government's top thrift regulator, where he began planning key meetings between federal regulators and a group of senators. Shortly after the meeting, Riegle flew to Phoenix, where his meetings with Keating included a helicopter tour of his real estate empire, golf courses and hotels.

Riegle's biggest payday came during a March 23 Detroit fund-raiser sponsored by Keating. A week later, Riegle quietly arranged the first of two meetings between his Senate colleagues and federal regulators to discuss Keating's company - meetings which later became the focal point of one of the biggest congressional ethics probes in history.

In defending Riegle before the Ethics Committee, Riegle's attorney appealed to senators to take pity on his client's poor memory.

Bennett wasn't biting. After a 17-month investigation, Bennett strongly suggested that Riegle had perjured himself. If there was no linkage between Keating's contributions and Riegle's favors, Bennett argued, "why is there so much substantial evidence that Sen. Riegle was making an effort to obscure his role?"

Despite Bennett's efforts, Riegle walked away with a wrist-slap from his fellow senators. Come this January, Riegle will leave the Senate, having received a loud message from Michigan voters. After a stormy, 18-year career in the Senate, Riegle's swan song will be the Whitewater hearings and the sacking of Altman.

The irony of this has not been lost on at least one former member of the Senate Ethics Committee: "It was surreal to watch Riegle talking about Altman not telling the truth. I just think it shows you that anything is possible in Washington."