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Hatch’s pal getting him into hot water again

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WASHINGTON — Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has now been burned three times through his friendship with Monzer Hourani, a Houston developer. Maybe it's time to learn to keep some discreet distance.

Hourani is a native of Lebanon who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 20 years ago — and Hatch said he was first introduced to him by friends who asked him to help the Arab adapt into the LDS faith.

Their excitement to help each other since then has caused some ethical headaches for Hatch and is doing so yet again.

The first problem came in the late '80s when Hatch was persuaded by leaders of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International — which was later closed for money laundering and terrorist ties — to give a Senate speech (written mostly by its lobbyists) calling for an end to government probes of it.

When the president of BCCI called to thank him, Hatch suggested that BCCI look into giving Hourani a loan. Hatch said later that Hourani suspected anti-Arab bias at other banks, and Hatch thought that an Arab-owned bank would help him more.

No loan was ever given. But Hatch's request ended up deepening an Ethics Committee probe into Hatch's ties with BCCI — and whether he helped the bank in return for favors. It did not help that at the same time, Hourani was in turn managing a small blind trust for Hatch.

Hatch said Hourani had persuaded him to invest $10,000. With that, Hourani bought a rental townhome in Houston (where housing was ridiculously cheap), and managed it — forwarding profits onto Hatch.

The Senate Ethics Committee eventually cleared Hatch of any wrongdoing — but its long probe into the BCCI scandal had to be the worst time in Hatch's political life.

Hourani next caused Hatch headaches when he broke federal election law to benefit his friend. After Hourani had given the maximum personal donations to Hatch allowed by law, he gave more money to employees and asked them to donate it to Hatch in their own names.

Hourani said he didn't know that was a federal violation. But the Federal Election Commission did and fined him $10,000. It ruled that Hatch did not know about the law-breaking, and it did not force him to return the illegally given money.

The third and latest problem now is, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that as Hourani was seeking a political favor from Hatch, he bought 1,200 CDs of Hatch's songs — for which Hatch receives $3 to $7 each. Of course, ethics rules ban lobbyists from paying money directly to senators.

The situation is a bit too reminiscent of a scandal that forced former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, to resign. In it, labor unions and other interest groups bought in bulk copies of a book that Wright wrote — giving him extra royalties. The House Ethics Committee accused him of using that to evade outside earnings limits.

Hourani made such purchases about the same time he told officials at HealthSouth — a health-care provider that is the major construction client of Hourani — that he would see if he could get Hatch to help out with Medicare reimbursement rulings that hurt it.

Hatch did ask Medicare to review the situation, but says he did it at the request of HealthSouth's CEO — not because Hourani mentioned it to him. Hatch and Hourani insist that no political favors were "bought" — and the CD purchases came because they share a love of Hatch's music.

I've known Hatch long enough to be confident he is honest and would not consciously sell a political favor in return for extra CD sales. But I also know he is sometimes too trusting, especially of anyone he perceives to be an underdog (like BCCI, or President Clinton during impeachment). Sometimes people have problems because they deserve it. Sometimes people do try to buy favors, too.

Hatch's friendship with people like Hourani — or music industry folk who want changes in the copyright laws he oversees as they do business with him on his songs — blinds him to the ethics problems or scandals they may cause.

It's time to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing, especially with Hourani. It's time for Hatch to tell him he doesn't need any more favors from him and would do better without them.

Deseret Morning News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at lee@desnews.com