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Trial by Fire on the Hill : ‘Keating Five’: In a searingly public inquiry, the accused senators answer a tribunal of their peers with tears and anger.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“This will be on my tombstone,” Sen. John McCain confided recently. “My name will always be linked with Charlie Keating’s.”

The Arizona Republican’s lament reflects the deep sense of personal loss, humiliation and dread that members of the “Keating Five” clearly feel as they endure the Senate Ethics Committee’s public investigation into allegations of official misconduct stemming from their relationship with Lincoln Savings & Loan owner Charles H. Keating Jr.

And even if the committee decides they should be exonerated of charges that they intervened improperly with federal regulators on Keating’s behalf, all five senators are acutely aware that the savings and loan scandal has dulled--at least temporarily--the luster of their political careers.

Never before in the Senate’s 200-year history have this many senators been called before a public tribunal of their peers to answer charges of official misconduct. The five stand accused of assisting Keating in exchange for $1.3 million in contributions they solicited from him.

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If found guilty, the senators could face punishment ranging from reprimand to expulsion. If evidence of criminal action is found, the case could be referred to the Justice Department.

For McCain and colleagues Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, John Glenn and Donald Riegle, the burden of their unusual predicament is apparent: In their sober expressions as they sit at the green felt-covered tables, in their bowed heads as they enter and leave the hearing room, and in the hugs they exchange with family members at every opportunity.

It also is apparent in the deep emotion that poured forth as they defended themselves in lengthy opening statements filled with protestations of innocence. In fact, two senators were clearly choking back tears as they concluded their remarks.

Everyone in the hearing room seems both sensitive to the senators’ feelings and acutely aware that the men already have been harmed by the controversy. Perhaps the most sensitive listeners are the six Ethics Committee members themselves, who clearly realize--as DeConcini put it--"There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

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Committee Vice Chairman Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) expressed the panel’s feelings last week when he privately told one “Keating Five” member who was preparing to deliver his defense: “Your career’s on the line; don’t feel like you have to hurry.”

McCain and Glenn, (D-Ohio), both national heroes, appear to have generated the most sympathy among the spectators, reporters and Senate employees in the audience. Before the hearings started last week, the committee refused to exonerate the pair, even though special counsel Robert S. Bennett said he found no evidence that they were guilty of misconduct.

Until the “Keating Five” scandal arose, McCain was known primarily as a former Vietnam prisoner of war and Glenn as the former astronaut who was the first American to orbit the globe. Glenn unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1984; McCain had been expected to run for national office in the near future.

But in the aftermath of these hearings, even if they are found blameless, neither McCain nor Glenn will be remembered entirely for their acts of heroism.

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Glenn, in his defense statement, sought to capitalize upon the squeaky-clean image he has had since his fresh face first appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1962.

“You have known me as a colleague for nearly 16 years, and the people of Ohio have known me for over 30 years,” he said. “I want both you and them to know that if there is one thing about me that has never changed, it is my unshakable belief that public service is a public trust--and that will never change.”

Being summoned to appear before the committee is particularly humiliating for McCain, who raised a public fuss over the panel’s long delay in acting on Bennett’s recommendation to dismiss charges against him and Glenn. Sources said committee members were angered by McCain’s public grandstanding.

In addition, the hearings have exposed a nasty feud between McCain and fellow Arizona senator, DeConcini, a Democrat.

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McCain and DeConcini have long had a serious disagreements over key facts in the affair. Moreover, according to sources, DeConcini feels that McCain--in an effort to clear himself--has portrayed him as the chief villain in the case.

McCain, the only one of the five senators who chats with reporters during breaks in the proceedings, admits that he has tried to separate himself from DeConcini in the public’s view of the case. His efforts had failed until Bennett, at the start of the hearing, declared that DeConcini was a key player in the Keating affair and that McCain played no role.

Although McCain did not persuade the committee to drop the charges against him, DeConcini feels his efforts influenced Bennett. In fact, DeConcini publicly accused the special counsel on Monday of applying different standards to the two Arizona senators.

It is not surprising that DeConcini, along with Democrats Riegle of Michigan and Cranston of California, have responded most vehemently to the charges against them. Bennett found that these three, unlike McCain and Glenn, had played a substantial role in the affair.

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Since the day the hearings began, DeConcini has made it clear that he is angry and bitter about his circumstances. His indignation showed plainly in his two-hour opening speech to the committee. Calling on his experience as a lawyer and former county prosecutor, he delivered a skillful, effective rebuttal.

Nevertheless, DeConcini could not conceal his sadness. His voice cracked and he appeared to be holding back tears when he remarked about the pain that the proceedings had caused his wife and son, both of whom have been attending the hearings.

Riegle also choked up when he thanked his family for the support they had given him during the year of unflattering publicity leading up to these hearings.

He was clearly stung by Bennett’s charge that the Michigan senator had conveniently forgotten many of the details of his involvement with Keating.

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Moreover, he expressed concern for the impact this case may have had on his family--the memory of his grandfather, who was a county school commissioner, and his father, the former may or of Flint, Mich.

“I would never dishonor my family name,” he insisted.

Cranston sounded a similar note during his one brief appearance at the hearings. He said the thing that disturbed him most about the case was the inference in many newspaper articles that his son, Kim, had benefited personally from $850,000 donated by Keating to voter registration groups supported by Cranston.

His son headed two of those registration groups, but received no pay for his work.

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But Cranston, who will miss most of the hearing because he is in California undergoing radiation treatments for prostate cancer, also emphasized that the Keating affair has already had a bigger impact on his future than on the careers of any of the other four senators.

“I am 76 years old,” he reminded his colleagues. “I have been privileged to serve the people of California to the best of my ability for 22 years in this most illustrious democratic body in all history. I have announced I will not be running for reelection.”


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