In Washington, it was the only show in town. According to one media survey, more than 80 per cent of Capitol Hill offices with television sets tuned in on May 23 as attorneys for House of Representatives Speaker Jim Wright battled to persuade the House ethics committee to drop the most serious charges against him.
With the drama carried live on cable TV, Wright watched the 8V2 hours of heated arguments in his private office.
But his wife, Betty, who is also implicated in the charges of financial misconduct against her husband, appeared at the hearing itself, arriving fashionably—and dramatically—late amid a blaze of camera lights. The committee, however, seemed unimpressed by the Wright team’s arguments. And while the congressman continued to proclaim his innocence, even some supporters acknowledged that he had lost the fight. Trying to salvage what remained of his dignity, the 66-year-old Wright was widely expected to resign from the body in which he has served for 34 years— perhaps after delivering a farewell speech in the House this week.
With that, Wright would become the first House Speaker ever to be driven from office, leaving congressional Democrats struggling to contain the political damage. But at week’s end the Democrats sustained a second serious blow: majority whip Tony Coelho of California, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, announced that he was resigning from Congress after reports of an investigation into his financial dealings. Coelho had been considered the leading contender to become House majority leader if Wright stepped down and, as expected, was replaced as Speaker by current majority leader Thomas Foley of Washington. But the Justice Department is expected to examine whether Coelho received preferential treatment in buying a $120,000 bond underwritten by the investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Coelho has admitted that he failed to report help he received from a company executive in buying the bond, but has denied giving special political treatment to the savings and loan industry in return. Still, he said last week that he would resign on June 15 because “I don’t intend to put my party through more turmoil.”
Wright’s troubles had already provided plenty of that. The second in line for the presidency after the vice-president, Wright faced charges of violating congressional rules of conduct 69 times by not declaring thousands of dollars in gifts and by sidestepping legal limits on speak-
ing fees through bulk sales of his book Reflections of a Public Man. Last week he again denied the charges and rejected reports that he had tried to bargain away the major ones in exchange for his resignation. But both Democrats and Republicans were clearly hoping that he would step down soon. Said Richard Scammon, director of the Washington-based Elections Research Centre: “It’s mopping-up time now. All sides want to avoid a public trial in which institutions and people are pilloried.” The charges against Wright are contained in a report compiled at a cost of $1.8 million and
released on April 17 by the 12-member ethics committee—six Democrats and six Republicans. The report alleged that Wright accepted about $172,000 in illegal gifts and favors from Texas businessman George Maffick between 1979 and 1988—including $85,000 in salary to his wife—at a time when Maffick’s real estate and oil and gas holdings gave him a direct interest in congressional legislation. The committee also charged that, by selling his book to universities and interest groups, Wright had earned $9,100 in speaking fees disguised as book sales. Then, on May 4, published reports revealed that 16 years ago, the Speaker’s top aide, John Mack, had brutally bludgeoned and stabbed a woman. Wright, whose daughter was married to Mack’s brother, was active in convincing the court to commute the sentence to 27 months from eight years, partly by offering the jailed man a job in his office. But while Wright defended his actions as humane, Mack resigned on May 11 under a cloud that engulfed the Speaker as well.
Last week, Texas lawyer Stephen Susman pleaded before the ethics committee for dismissal of the two major charges against Wright— those resulting from the book sales and the gifts from Maffick. Susman described Wright as a champion of the little guy who had become the victim of a “lynch mob” media that had already declared him “dead.” Added the lawyer: “Why worry about due process for a dead man?” But the committee’s lawyer, Richard Phelan, said that the integrity of Congress could be damaged if the charges were dropped. Declared Phelan: “What is the average American to think? Are we g here to protect the wealthy I so they can give their congressman whatever they I want because they are good ^ friends?”
Meanwhile, Wright’s supporters tried to reach a compromise by having the Speaker resign quietly in exchange for dropping charges. But committee members refused to make a deal. His case, along with the expected resignation of Coelho, had clearly damaged the Democrats—and Congress in general. “From the average American’s point of view he is guilty,” Atlanta pollster Claiborne Darden said of Wright. “They don’t care about the details—he is just another crooked politician.” It was a sobering thought for Wright to contemplate as he made his way through what seemed certain to be his final days as Speaker.
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