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Congress Curbs Included in Ethics Report : Panel Avoids Firm Recommendation on Outside Income Ceiling

Times Staff Writer

The commission hand-picked by President Bush to toughen ethical standards in government finished its work Wednesday, recommending curbs that largely would affect Congress.

But the panel avoided one of its thorniest problems by forwarding to the lawmakers the decision on how much outside income high-ranking federal employees should be allowed to earn.

Exceptions Recommended

After dropping their earlier decision to limit outside earnings to 15% of a worker’s government salary, commission members recommended that Congress set the amount near that level but allow unspecified exceptions to the ceiling in cases that do not pose ethical conflicts.

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Also, the commission suggested reluctantly that members of Congress be subject to investigation by independent counsels or special prosecutors.

That move, if approved by Congress, would extend the independent counsel law that now permits such investigations of top executive branch officials, such as Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who was a Ronald Reagan Administration national security officer.

But commission members said that they advocated expansion of the independent counsel investigations only to provide equal treatment for the two branches of government; a majority of the members indicated that they actually would rather rescind the law.

Felony Penalties Opposed

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In a 181-page draft report that covers a raft of ethical issues, the commission recommended that existing felony charges and penalties for conflict-of-interest violations be reduced to misdemeanors and civil fines. That move, commission members argued, would make prosecutors more willing to tackle borderline ethics cases.

With Wednesday’s session--the last of several public hearings in its high-profile effort--the commission was poised to deliver its recommendations to Bush.

But, even before its formal release, the commission report was harshly criticized by officers of Common Cause, the citizens’ group whose president, Fred Wertheimer, charged that commission members “ducked” tough issues they had been commanded to address.

Not Biting the Bullet

“There are too many people (on the commission) who spent too many years justifying and rationalizing what’s gone on in Washington, and they are not willing to bite the bullet,” he said, adding: “It doesn’t appear to me that this ethics commission has served President Bush well.”

But Malcolm R. Wilkey, commission president, termed the report a work of which “we can be proud . . . .”

Overall, the commission will forward to Bush a range of recommendations, including:

--Establishing a panel of private citizens to serve as an advisory group to the President’s counsel.

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--Developing a coordinating committee--made up of representatives of the three branches of government--to standardize ethics forms and requirements for appointees and job-seekers.

Congress Ethics Office

--Establishing in Congress a joint office on ethics to give both houses uniform advice on ethical questions.

--Simplifying required financial disclosure forms.

--Banning honorariums for federal workers and imposing a requirement that the amount of meals and gifts that employees may now receive be curtailed to a uniform level, which was unspecified.

--Expanding the existing one-year ban on lobbying by former executive branch employees to include former members of Congress and the federal judiciary.


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