FROM the moment he took office, President Clinton has been
forced to deal with politically treacherous, if legally minor,
ethics battles surrounding the nation's leading law enforcement
Even as Zoe Baird's nomination for attorney general was crashing
over her employment of illegal immigrants, a Justice Department
report accused Federal Bureau of Investigation Director William
Sessions of repeated abuse of his position for petty financial gain.
Baird left clean slate
After intense negative public reaction, Ms. Baird reluctantly
walked away from the nomination last Friday leaving Mr. Clinton,
who had picked the corporate attorney even though he knew of her
transgression, a clean slate to try again.
But Mr. Sessions's case is more complicated and promises to drag
out until a new attorney general can sort through the allegations
for the new administration. (The FBI is a branch of the Justice
Department, which is headed by the attorney general.)
After a six-month investigation by the Justice Department's
Office of Professional Responsibility, Sessions was accused, among
other things, of evading income taxes on the use of his
chauffeur-driven limousine, using FBI vehicles to drive his wife to
social functions and on personal errands, making personal trips to
visit family with his wife on FBI planes, and improperly charging
the government for a $10,000 fence around his home.
Sessions has rebutted all the charges. He says FBI counsel
reviews all of the director's trips and determines whether they are
personal or private. Similarly, he relied on the counsel's advice
regarding his tax exemption for use of FBI vehicles.
There were only two instances in five years - not "routine" use
- of FBI vehicles to transport his wife alone, he says. The fence,
he claims, was built for security purposes and was recommended by
Aside from the primary issue of Sessions' guilt or innocence,
the controversy raises several related concerns.
FBI morale and credibility could be damaged if the director is
not either exonerated or ousted quickly, say those familiar with
"Institutionally, the agency winces when its leadership is being
buffeted around," says former FBI director William Webster.
Ethics standards lax
Even if Sessions can prove the allegations false, the very fact
that there were so many instances in which he offered the
appearance of impropriety suggests that ethics standards are not
being pushed strongly enough - or even taught - to new federal
executives, says a congressional aide who has been involved in
investigations of other federal officials accused of ethical lapses. …