For Robert McFarlane, former national security adviser to U.S. President Ronald Reagan, it was a humiliating experience. His voice barely audible, McFarlane admitted in a Washington courtroom last month that in 1985 and 1986 he had repeatedly misled the congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra scandal—the operation in which administration officials undertook to trade arms for hostages
with Iran and then divert profits to the struggle to overthrow Nicaragua’s San-dinista government. McFarlane pleaded guilty to four noncriminal misdemeanor charges—an admission of wrongdoing that clearly caused his former boss little distress. Said Reagan to reporters: “He just pleaded guilty to not telling Congress everything it wanted to know. I’ve done that myself.”
To many observers, Reagan’s off-thecuff comment graphically illustrated his administration’s often-cavalier attitude toward laws and conventions governing the ethics of government officials. According to a report issued by the House of Representatives subcommittee on the
civil service last month, a total of 242 Reagan administration officials have either violated criminal or government ethics laws or are under investigation for alleged violations. Many observers have expressed surprise at that number—and at the reaction of the President. Said John Gardiner, a political scientist at the University of Illinois and an expert on government corruption: “What is unusual is that throughout the Reagan administration we have had a situation where the President himself doesn’t seem to care.”
Many critics charge that such an attitude appears to have pervaded the entire White House. The catalogue of individuals who have been implicated in scandal or wrongdoing or who are currently under investigation includes several from the highest and most sensitive offices in the Reagan administration. Among the most prominent:
Edwin Meese, attorney general. Special prosecutor James McKay has been investigating Meese’s affairs in a number of areas. In 1982, while working as a White House aide, Meese allegedly helped New York-based Wedtech Corp. obtain a military contract and later invested the bulk of his savings with a financial consultant employed by Wedtech.
McKay is also investigating claims that Meese aided a close friend’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain U.S. government support for an Iraqi pipeline project. Fi! nally, he is exploring possible £ conflicts of interest from a meeting between Meese and telephone company executives at a time when the attorney general and his wife owned stock in those companies. Although McKay has said that indictments will not be brought down in those three areas, he is expected to release a stinging report on Meese’s ethical standards. Still, even though six top justice department posts are vacant due to resignations—in some cases protests against Meese’s refusal to resign—Reagan is still supporting Meese, his close friend.
John Poindexter, former national security adviser, and Oliver North, former National Security Council aide. Last month special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh charged the two men with a va-
riety of offences relating to the Iran-contra scandal. Among them: theft of government property and obstruction of Congress.
Lyn Nofziger,former White House aide. On April 8, he was imprisoned for 90 days and fined $37,500 for illegally lobbying top White House aides on behalf of Wedtech.
Lynn Helms, former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Over the past nine years at least two grand juries and two federal agencies have investigated his private business practices before and after he assumed office, which included defaults on government loans made to his business consulting firm. Helms resigned in 1983.
Raymond Donovan, former secretary of labor. In 1982 Donovan was investigated, then cleared, of links to organized crime. In 1984 a grand jury indicted Donovan on charges of grand larceny and falsification of documents related to his dealings with the New York City Transit Authority. Donovan, who resigned that year, was acquitted of those charges in 1987.
Rita Lavelle, former assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxic waste cleanup program. Lavelle did not withdraw from cases relating to her former employer, Aerojet General Corp., and she apparently showed favoritism to other corporations. She was convicted of lying to a congressional committee under oath and was fired in 1983.
Richard Allen, former national security adviser. In 1981 Allen accepted three watches and $1,000 from a Japanese magazine that had been granted an interview with Nancy Reagan. As well, on a financial disclosure form Allen had said that he sold his business consulting company in 1978, but the sale did not in fact take place until 1981. A justice department inquiry cleared him of wrongdoing, saying that the errors were “inadvertent.” Allen resigned in 1982.
According to some political analysts, certain accusations against Reagan administration officials have come about because the rules are complex and the line between acceptable behavior and illegal conduct is badly defined. Still, some cases of ethics violations appear clear-cut. The Ethics in Government Act makes it illegal for administration officials to lobby former colleagues for at least two years after they leave gov-
ernment. As a result, former presidential adviser Michael Deaver became the subject of a special investigation after he lobbied officials on behalf of clients, including the governments of Canada and South Korea, soon after his departure from the White House in 1985. Late last year Deaver was convicted of lying three times under oath—although none of those occasions related to his efforts on behalf of Ottawa for U.S. acid rain legislation.
Another part of the problem, accord-
ing to some experts, is that Reagan has often used poor judgment in filling appointments. Jobs in the bureaucracy are accepted political spoils; the government even publishes a 262-page volume, commonly known as the Plum Book, that lists thousands of jobs that the president can fill at will. “Helping out a friend is part of the American political tradition,” said Gardiner. “But when you put friends in jobs who are not up to them, the questions start. Reagan has kept people on even
when the questions grow more embarrassing.”
Despite the widespread attention given to the Iran-contra scandal, it is not the source of most of the cases listed in last month’s House subcommittee report. Many of the problems have arisen from the appointments to lowprofile posts of right-wing Republican party loyalists. In one case in 1985, Reagan-appointee R. Leonard Vance, director of health standards for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, allegedly told members of his staff that they used “communistic” language and accused them of having been “trained in Moscow.” The subcommittee on the civil service later investigated morale in the department, but Vance claimed that he could not turn over his records because his dog had “barfed all over them.”
Other lower-level officials became involved in corruption for personal gain. Among the most prominent is Peter Voss, former vice-chairman of the postal service, who in 1986 pleaded guilty to accepting kickbacks for helping a contractor obtain a $310-million contract for sorting machines. Voss, who resigned in 1986, also admitted to embezzling $54,000 by submitting expenses for first-class air travel when he actually flew economy class.
In an effort to eradicate corruption, Representative Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who chairs the civil service subcommittee, last month introduced a bill that would set up an independent office of government ethics. Its director, to be recommended to the President by a five-member panel of “distinguished” Republicans and Democrats, would be empowered to launch investigations of officials at any time. Under the current process for initiating an investigation, a special panel of judges must first decide to appoint a special prosecutor.
So far, Schroeder’s bill has attracted little attention in the U.S. media. According to Susan Welch, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, that may be partly because U.S. voters are more interested in politicians’ sexual misdeeds than in violations of often-confusing ethics laws. But Welch said that public dismay is bound to increase. “Corruption has spread over a greater number of people than in any other administration this century,” she said. “The public is getting more concerned because it reaches up to the highest levels.” In fact, the approaching trials of Poindexter and North, as well as the possibility of further Irancontra indictments, appear certain to promote debate over the ethical behavior of Washington’s public servants.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.