Sessions Case an Ethics Quagmire the Justice Department's Accusations FBI Director Raise Questions about Behavioral Standards and Accusers' Motives

Article excerpt

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 posts.

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 bureau officials.

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 the bureau.

"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. …


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