Wright's Loss of Speakership Predicted : Many Colleagues Privately Say Ethics Case Will Force Him Out

Times Staff Writer

"I am besieged," joked House Speaker Jim Wright earlier this week as he was swarmed by reporters who were seeking his response to the latest allegations against him. "I am surrounded, like Travis at the Alamo."

Unfortunately for Wright, his jest rang true to many of his House colleagues, who have watched in astonishment over the last few months as the Speaker's chances of retaining his high office appear to have deteriorated steadily in the face of mounting charges of ethical wrongdoing. Privately, many House members--including some of Wright's staunchest admirers--are predicting that his days as Speaker are numbered.

"He's history."

"He's gone."

"He'll never survive."

These remarks are representative of the private comments of some prominent House Democrats, all of whom refuse to be quoted by name for fear that they would be viewed as disloyal to the Speaker. Their conclusion is based on the 69 charges leveled against Wright by the House Ethics Committee a month ago, as well as on subsequent developments.

Expansion of Oil Probe

In addition, Wright suffered a new setback Wednesday when the ethics panel decided to expand its investigation of a Texas oil deal that produced a quick profit for the Speaker. This charge had just come to the committee's attention when it issued its preliminary report a month ago.

Not only have many new allegations surfaced in recent weeks, but also there is evidence that Wright's high-priced legal defense may be backfiring. Moreover, Wright also has been embarrassed by an unrelated story that appeared in the Washington Post and later in The Times a week ago detailing how one of the Speaker's top aides attempted to kill a woman in an incident at a store nearly 15 years ago.

Wright still has many vocal defenders among House Democrats. One of them, Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), told reporters Wednesday that Wright's chances of being exonerated are 100%. Seeing a skeptical reaction on the reporters' faces, he quickly added: "You don't have to understand it or agree with it."

Coelho Embarrassed

But some of the House members who appear to be most pessimistic about Wright's chances of surviving are those who still defend him publicly. Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House assistant minority leader and a Wright defender, was embarrassed last week when the Baltimore Sun quoted him as suggesting that the Ethics Committee is now likely to recommend a reprimand of Wright--a penalty that likely would deprive him of his Speakership. Coelho apparently thought that his remarks to a Sun reporter would be anonymous.

Even those who see little chance for Wright's success are feeling sympathy for him. In the eyes of most House Democrats, Wright has been an excellent Speaker since he inherited the job from former Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) more than two years ago.

One House Democrat seemed to sum up their mixed emotions when he said: "I find myself feeling irritation about the charges, sympathy for his plight and pessimism about his future."

Higher Standard on Verdict

Since Wright was charged publicly with violations of House rules on April 17, many House Democrats have reasoned that the Ethics Committee would not have charged him unless its members also expected to find him guilty of at least some of the charges--even though House rules require a higher standard of proof for a guilty verdict. Their opinion apparently has been bolstered by private discussions with committee members.

In fact, some members said they have talked with panel members who are furious that Wright and his attorneys are attacking the committee counsel, Richard J. Phelan, as part of his defense strategy. These sources said committee members believe that the criticism of Phelan is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on them.

One knowledgeable source said the committee members now appear more likely to vote for a reprimand--one of the harsher actions they could take--as a result of the criticism being heaped on Phelan. Members of the committee, headed by Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), have refused to confirm such reports, however.

New Allegations Surface

Clearly, the criticism coming from Wright's lawyers has not dissuaded the committee from looking into the new allegations that have surfaced since the investigating panel's initial report came out. Rep. John T. Meyers (R-Ind.), ranking Republican on the committee, said recent newspaper stories about Wright have "not gone unnoticed" by the panel.

In fact, Meyers complained publicly Tuesday that the committee cannot finish its inquiry because new allegations keep surfacing faster than they can be investigated.

Among other things, Wright has had to answer allegations by a witness who testified in court in Dallas last week that he was told by a Texas savings and loan executive that Wright would stop legislation opposed by the thrift industry if S&L; executives contributed $250,000 to a Democratic congressional candidate in 1985. Wright denied any knowledge of such a deal.

The Speaker also has been dogged by a new allegation involving a $100,000 investment he made in a chain of financially troubled nursing homes operated by Jewell Enterprises Inc. Although Wright lost money, it is alleged that he received some payments on his investment while other investors got nothing. He also has been accused of taking illegal, free flights on a plane owned by T. R. Jewell, who ran Jewell Enterprises.

In its Thursday editions, the New York Times reported that Jewell had said his firm had provided the money to pay Wright's interest on the loan that he obtained to invest in the firm. Jewell told the newspaper that the money was considered "a loan" and that such loans were available to other investors in his firm.

Likewise, Wright's wife, Betty, continues to generate controversy.

The committee already has charged that Betty Wright did virtually no work for an $18,000-a-year salary she received from an investment company owned by the Wrights and their Ft. Worth business partner. Now, two former employees of the Pacific Institute, a Seattle-based company, have told the Wall Street Journal that she did no work in early 1988 to justify her $36,000 salary from that firm. The ethics panel has termed the $18,000 salary an improper gift.

But perhaps the story about Wright that has gained the widest attention in recent weeks has nothing to do with his personal finances or his own conduct in office. Instead, it involves Wright's decision in the mid-1970s to hire John P. Mack, who was then the brother of the lawmaker's son-in-law and had just completed 27 months in jail for a brutal attack on a woman.

Mack, 35, is now Wright's top aide.

Although the story of Mack's crime was well-known among House Democrats, it shocked many people who read the story for the first time last week. On Wednesday, the Post carried a number of letters from readers who believe that Wright had erred by rewarding Mack, who earns $89,500 a year, with a powerful job.

Although most House members refused to comment on the Mack story, Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah) told the Salt Lake Tribune that it "compounds, in an indirect way," the questions that have been raised about Wright's judgment. "I'm not passing judgment," he said, "I'm merely saying that's another straw on the load."

Outside of the Mack story, other aspects of the Wright investigation appear to be having little impact on the public. A Times Poll showed that very few people were paying attention.

One Democratic congressman said that, although he seldom is questioned about Wright by his constituents, he frequently hears expressions of concern from party activists in his home district who fear that the affair is "giving the Democrats a horrible image."

In the House, likewise, there is a growing desire among Democrats to see the Wright investigation completed as soon as possible. "It's not a pleasant time in the House," one Democrat said. "It certainly detracts from what we're trying to do."

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