Dirty Little Hands

Maybe it's time Americans took a page from Italy's experience. There, the anti-corruption drive "Operation Clean Hands" was placed in the hands of a permanent ethics czar to shield it from political influence.

ANOTHER CAREFULLY orchestrated Clintonoid leak at week's end--this time from the Justice Department--presaged the impending formal announcement by Attorney General Janet Reno that she won't seek an independent counsel probe of either the president or Al Gore in the campaign-finance scandal. No surprise: By narrowly confining her investigation to just a sliver of the special-interest-money mess (the use of official White House offices for fundraising phone calls), Reno guaranteed from the get-go that she'd be able to exculpate her bosses.

Reno's willful blindness to the flood of evidence suggesting that the influence-selling was a staple of the '96 Clinton/Gore campaign allowed her to keep her job. However, her late-term abortion of the dialing-for-dollars probe does not mean an end to the administration's political or legal problems.

Take, for example, the malodorous sweetheart deal involving the new headquarters for the Federal Communications Commission, which has received virtually no national media attention. The deal involves Franklin L. Haney, a Tennessee developer who is a longtime buddy and financial supporter of Al Gore.

Daniel Ruen

When the FCC wanted to consolidate its scattered Washington offices into a single space, the General Services Administration selected the planned Portals office building as the cheapest available site. The Portals was owned by Republic Properties in conjunction with Confederation Life Insurance. But in 1995 the insurance firm was liquidated by Canadian regulators, and Republic needed a new source of funding. In stepped Haney, who took over a half-interest in the Portals project.

FCC officials had opposed the choice of the Portals by GSA for several reasons: It was in an obscure corner of Washington near the Tidal Basin bereft of restaurants or other amenities, and--as an FCC exec testified before the House in July 1995--the space was too small. But after Gore's buddy Haney got involved, the FCC dropped its opposition. (It should be remembered that Gore, who has become a shill for the telecommunications industry from which he raises big bucks, is the administration's political overseer for the FCC.)

Within six months of Haney's becoming a partner in Portals, the FCC renegotiated its lease on the property to allow for the addition of 85,000 square feet. That added $60 million to the cost of the project, bringing the total taxpayer tab to some $412 million over the 20-year lease.

Normally, a $60-million expansion and cost overrun would have required approval by the House Transportation Committee, which oversees the GSA. But in an extraordinary fiddle, the GSA split the expansion deal into three smaller pieces, allowing it to avoid having to seek congressional approval.

What got the FCC to switch on the project, and the GSA to engage in bureaucratic chicanery? Well, not long after the lease expansion was signed, Haney, his business associate, and a gaggle of companies controlled by Haney donated a total of $110,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Haney personally gave another $130,000 to various state Democratic parties.

Finally, Haney's dealings on the Portals with the government were handled by '96 Clinton/Gore campaign manager Peter Knight--Gore's longtime chief of staff turned K Street lobbyist, who reportedly collected a cool million for his efforts. Knight is already under investigation for his role in getting a Gore-sponsored Department of Energy official to award a $30 million toxic-waste-removal contract to a big Democratic contributor, Molten Metals Technology, over the objections of Energy's own scientists.

The manipulations of government on behalf of clients like Molten Metals and Portals by Gore's fixer-fundraiser Knight are enough by themselves to justify an independent counsel. However, corruption in government has become so institutionalized that it requires an institutionalized solution. Italy's anti-corruption drive, "Operation Clean Hands,"was placed in the hands of a permanent independent prosecutor's office to shield it from political influence. Sweden has a similar arrangement.

By contrast, all U.S. attorneys general are political appointees, and thus in an inherent conflict of interest that precludes them from thoroughly investigating the administrations of which they are a part. A permanent ethics czar with prosecutorial powers appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court would remove from future Renos the ability to stifle problems likely to cause embarrassment to their patrons.

 
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