Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) engaged in “a pattern of unethical conduct” in his financial affairs and deserves to be formally denounced by his colleagues, a special counsel charged Tuesday in a rare public hearing before the Senate Ethics Committee.
Committee counsel Robert S. Bennett, distilling thousands of pages of evidence and testimony from about 240 witnesses, accused Durenberger of “significant and substantial wrongdoing” and “serious violations” of Senate standards of behavior.
Tuesday’s session was the opening day of public hearings into charges that Durenberger used a book promotion deal to evade limits on speaking fees and camouflaged his ownership of a condominium to obtain improper living expense reimbursements from the Senate.
“This is not honest,” Bennett declared at one point. “This is not honest.”
Bennett called on the six-member panel to recommend that the full Senate issue a resolution “denouncing Sen. Durenberger for conduct which is reprehensible and has brought the Senate into disrepute.” The action would be the harshest sanction short of expulsion.
Durenberger, who sat silently throughout Bennett’s 3 1/2-hour recital of his alleged misdeeds, later issued a written statement conceding that he had made “mistakes” but maintaining that he had “acted in good faith.”
He said the actions under investigation were undertaken “on advice of outside, independent counsel” and were “reaffirmed” by staff members of the Senate Ethics and Rules committees and in a formal opinion from the Federal Election Commission.
James Hamilton, Durenberger’s attorney, said in his rebuttal that the senator frequently sought assurances that his fee and reimbursement arrangements violated no rules. Hamilton said the Senate should refrain from imposing the “severe sanction” demanded by Bennett.
Durenberger’s alleged misdeeds involve complex financial transactions that accusers say were designed to evade rules limiting annual income that senators may derive from speaking fees and governing the reimbursement they receive for business trips to their districts.
Ethics Committee Chairman Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), a former judge, carefully spelled out the gravity of the hearings.
“The questions for our consideration in these hearings and ultimately for the entire Senate are: ‘Has Sen. Durenberger, in connection with his Senate duties, violated laws or Senate rules? Has he . . . engaged in conduct which has reflected discredit upon the Senate?’ ” Heflin said.
Then, staring directly at Durenberger, who sat flanked by Hamilton and another lawyer at a witness table, Howell stated: “I do not know the answers to these questions. I have not and will not prejudge this case. If the evidence does not show improper action by Sen. Durenberger, then I will vote to clear him.
“But I must also say this to my colleague from Minnesota: If the evidence clearly and convincingly leads me to the conclusion that you have violated the public trust, I will not hesitate to recommend appropriate sanctions. The public and the Senate expect it. The Constitution demands it.”
Durenberger, wearing a dark suit, sat with his hands folded on the table before him and nodded slowly as Heflin spoke.
Heflin and the five other committee members--Sens. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), David Pryor (D-Ark.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Terry Sanford (D-N.C.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.)--praised Durenberger for cooperating with the committee in its pre-hearing work.
The panel’s investigation dates to September, 1988, when a group of Minnesota lawyers complained that Durenberger was funneling speech fees through a small Minnesota vanity publisher called Piranha Press.
According to the evidence summarized by Bennett, two compilations of Durenberger speeches and “white papers” written by Durenberger or his staff were printed by Piranha. During 1985 and 1986, he said, Durenberger’s speaking engagements before industry and special interest groups were treated as “promotional appearances” on behalf of Piranha Press and his books.
Those speaking fees normally would have counted against the annual limit imposed on each senator’s honorarium income. The limit was $22,530 in 1985 and $30,040 in 1986.
There were 113 such events during the two years, none of which were reported as a speech honorarium. In all, Bennett said, Piranha earned $248,360 from Durenberger speaking fees during this period and only $15,560 from the sale of Durenberger books.
In return, Piranha paid Durenberger a total of $100,000 in quarterly installments over the two years, he said.
“The contract with Piranha was not a good-faith book promotion arrangement,” Bennett said. No actual promotion ever took place, he said, and Durenberger’s books were displayed at only three of the events.
Bennett also outlined allegations that Durenberger obtained $40,055 in Senate reimbursement for living expenses at a Minneapolis condominium that he owned.
He said the senator’s ownership interest had been masked, first by a property swap with a neighbor and later by the formation of a partnership involving the same neighbor. After the arrangement came to light, the Senate Rules Committee objected to the reimbursements, and Durenberger recently paid back $11,005.
Durenberger is one of seven senators under investigation by the Ethics Committee. Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) are under fire for intervening with regulators on behalf of ailing Lincoln Savings & Loan. The seventh, Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), is under investigation for his role in the awarding of housing grants.
SENATOR UNDER FIRE
Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) on Tuesday became the fourth senator in the 26-year history of the Senate Ethics Committee to face a trial-like committee hearing in which he is accused of ethics violations.
The ominous news for Durenberger is that in three previous cases the accused senators fared poorly: Thomas J. Dodd (D-Conn.) was “censured” in 1967, Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.) was “denounced” in 1979 and Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) resigned in 1982 under threat of expulsion.
Durenberger, 55, who was first elected in 1978, is accused of using a book promotion deal to evade limits on speaking fees and of improperly receiving reimbursement for rent on a Minneapolis condominium in which he held an interest. He also is accused of accepting limousine service from lobbyists in violation of conflict-of-interest regulations.
Before the case arose, Durenberger had enjoyed a favorable image as an authority on health and Social Security issues.