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ETHICS PANEL SHOULD ACCEPT NO POLITICAL DEALS ON WRIGHT

EVENTS SURROUNDING House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, seem to change rapidly and could change yet again. But there is one course that should not change -- the Ethics Committee should make no deal with Wright to drop all or some of the charges it has brought against him in exchange for his resignation as speaker and as a member of the House.

So far, the committee has said it has reason to believe that Wright violated 69 House rules in recent years and it is continuing to investigate one other area of his conduct.

The most serious of the charges involve two basic accusations: That he and his wife received $145,000 in gifts from George A. Mallick, a Texas developer and business associate, with a direct interest in legislation before Congress; and that sales from a book that Wright wrote, "Reflections of a Public Man," demonstrated an "overall scheme to evade the House limit on outside income."

Whether or not Wright violated the letter of the rules, which he denies, the evidence presented by the committee and its counsel, Richard J. Phelan, raises profound ethical issues and leaves the appearance of violations of at least the spirit of the House rules.

To arrange a deal that would reduce or drop such charges in return for Wright's resignation would amount to an unworthy plea bargain.

It would wrongly mix two considerations -- politics and the merits of ethical substance embodied in those charges -- that should be kept entirely separate and distinct.

A quick deal that juggled politics and legalities in a case of ethical standards and conduct by Wright, a high public official who stands second in line to the presidency, would only deepen long-standing public distrust of Congress -- a distrust, whether justified or not, underlined by a new Washington Post-ABC News national survey.

Among other findings, that survey showed that three out or four Americans believe members of Congress will lie if the truth will hurt them politically and that more than half of the 1,513 polled in the sample believe legislators profit improperly from their positions in national office.

Current reports indicate that Wright is expected to resign his speakership and his House seat in the near future. That would be a satisfactory outcome of the present distressing controversy surrounding him.

But this remains a political question, and it is his to make. It includes wider considerations, including his effectiveness as a leader in the future and the impact of the controversy on the House itself and the Democratic party.

If Wright does resign as speaker and House member, then the charges of violating House rules will become moot. The panel and the House will no longer exercise any jurisdiction over him and his conduct.

He also, of course, retains the prerogative of staying on and fighting to clear himself of the charges by the ethics panel, before both the committee and the full House if he so chooses. He is fully entitled to exercise those options.

But whatever Wright's choice, the Ethics Committee should decline to either offer or accept any arrangement that swaps reductions or elimination of its own accusations for his resignation.

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