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Justice Dept. Drafting New Ethics Policy

Times Staff Writer

Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh announced Friday he will soon issue a new set of ethical standards to give “clear and explicit signals” about what he considers proper conduct at the Justice Department.

In his first speech to department employees, Thornburgh declared that “questions of integrity in any organization . . . cannot be addressed indirectly.” He said he is developing specific new rules so that “any confusion or uncertainty” is eliminated “over what is and is not permissible conduct.”

Without mentioning his predecessor, Edwin Meese III, who resigned under an ethics cloud last summer, Thornburgh said his rules would cover such issues as “how to avoid any appearance of personal and financial conflict of interest” and “how to deal with lapses in behavior, whether job-related or not.”

Meese was not charged with any crime in the lengthy federal investigation of his personal affairs, but a court-appointed independent counsel criticized him for favors he allegedly gave to and received from lawyer E. Robert Wallach, a longtime friend who worked for the scandal-plagued Wedtech Corp. of New York.

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Meese, who insisted that his conduct was “legal and proper,” strongly disputed assertions by two officials who quit his staff last spring that the ethical questions about his affairs had harmed morale at the department.

Thornburgh made clear in his 10-minute speech that the mere appearance of impropriety would receive particular emphasis in his new rules, beyond the actual conflicts of interest covered by statutes that apply to the department and other federal agencies.

Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor and one-time Justice Department official, who was named attorney general in July, received a prolonged standing ovation from employees in the department auditorium at the conclusion of his remarks.

He also signaled, in the clearest terms to date, that he considered himself a leading candidate to head the department if Vice President George Bush wins the presidential election next month. He did so by saying he wanted to share his views on “our future--whether that extends for another four months or another four years of my personal tenure.”

In remarks that were partly a pep talk to his troops, Thornburgh said the Justice Department has “a great tradition of professionalism and excellence.” But maintaining that tradition in the face of public skepticism about integrity in government is “a heavy burden,” he said.

Thornburgh said his goal is “to put our ideals and our principles on the record, and to say to the public, ‘These are our standards and we mean to live up to them.’ ”

In a concerted effort to put his personal stamp on a department shaken by Meese’s legal problems, Thornburgh also cautioned his audience against leaking internal information to Congress or to the press.

“Internal debate and argument is important to ensure that no voice is unheard and no viewpoint unexpressed,” he said. “But once our policy is set, ranks must be closed and the appropriate channels utilized to express our views.”

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He said he did not appreciate surprises.

“Good news or bad news, I don’t want to find out about it first by the backdoor or from our friends in the media,” Thornburgh said.


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