Commentary

Gore Team’s Ethical Judgment

This article appeared in the Washington Times October 16, 1999.
President Clinton may be one of America’s most corrupt politicians, but he is also one of its luckiest. Not so Vice President Al Gore, however. He may find it more difficult to avoid responsibility for his scandals.

Forget his illegal fund raising at the Buddhist temple. Forget his rule-breaking campaign phone calls. Forget his hiring of Donna Brazile, smear artist from the 1988 Democratic presidential campaign, as campaign manager.

There’s Tony Coelho, Mr. Gore’s campaign chairman. Mr. Coelho is precisely the sort of sleazy, influence-peddling K Street operator that the vice president says he fled Washington to escape.

Former Rep. Tony Coelho, California Democrat, was perhaps the Democratic Party’s premier shakedown artist. As majority whip and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he put the strong arm on corporate America to fund the perpetual re-election of his party’s House majority.

His failure to report a sweetheart junk bond deal led to his resignation in the face of an Ethics Committee investigation. He retreated to Wall Street, where he turned his political ties into financial gold. “I had a Rolodex” he proudly announced.

Mr. Clinton chose Mr. Coelho to direct the U.S. Pavilion at the 1998 World Exposition, an apparently harmless plum. Alas, the State Department inspector general found Mr. Coelho did not “adequately manage and control” use of everything from computers and lodging to free Expo tickets and VIP gifts. Total costs rose from a projected $8 million to $9.8 million - with as much as $ 720,000 more still outstanding in pending lawsuits.

Unable to raise enough cash privately, Mr. Coelho turned to his buddies in government to toss in almost $6.7 million in taxpayer funds. The inspector general concluded these subsidies “may have violated the spirit, if not the letter” of the law.

Mr. Coelho obtained a private $300,000 loan from a bank in Portugal, where the fair was located, which could have ended up a U.S. government liability. He misused $210,000 in donated airline tickets. He lived in an $18,000 a month apartment, paid for by the United States Information Agency.

He used private money raised for Expo ‘98 to pay rent on his New York office. He misused petty cash funds to cover the cost of a chauffeur-driven Mercedes, which violated the $500 monthly limit for autos - while six pavilion vans were left largely unused.

Not that Mr. Coelho was averse to sharing the wealth. He ordered the reimbursement of $26,000 in “questionable payments” to a consultant who worked for his New York firm; the inspector general reported there was no “legal basis” for doing so. Mr. Coelho’s deputies received $20,000 and $10,000 a month, respectively, and enjoyed $5,000-a-month apartments.

Mr. Coelho violated USIA regulations in hiring his niece for $2,500 a month. He hired two stepsons of Gerald McGowan, the U.S. ambassador to Portugal, for salaries of $2,700 and $3,200 a month, respectively, even though their contracts “did not identify any duties,” according to the inspector general.

Nor do the abuses stop there. It turns out Mr. Coelho was working with three different corporate underwriters of the Pavilion on private business deals in Portugal. This obvious conflict of interest violated government ethics rules.

Of course, Mr. Coelho lived by Clinton administration standards and hindered the investigation. The inspector general complained of “the destruction of certain records.” According to the Center for Public Integrity (www.public-i.org), Mr. Coelho ordered their destruction because, he told one subordinate, “I don’t want to have people reading these” materials. No wonder!

Also like the president who selected him, Mr. Coelho refused to take responsibility for his actions. “There may have been management lapses,” explained attorney Stanley Brand, but the law was not violated. Indeed, explained Mr. Brand, poor Tony “devoted two years of his life and spent substantial amounts of his own money” to the project.

What did the vice president have to say about Mr. Coelho’s misbehavior? “Tony Coelho is doing a terrific job. He’s my close friend, and he’s going to continue doing a great job.”

True, admits the vice president, “I haven’t seen this report.” But Mr. Coelho “is staying.” It’s the sort of “inside baseball” that the American people “are not interested in.”

Why let the issue of ethics get in the way of an election? This is, after all, Mr. Clinton’s attitude. Conflicts of interest, lies, abuses of power, dubious campaign practices, obstruction of justice - all have become commonplace.

It turns out Mr. Gore isn’t all that different from Mr. Clinton. The Tony Coelho scandal, far from being inside baseball, demonstrates the core values upon which a Gore presidency would be based.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.