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IT'S A sure bet that the savings and loan fiasco will spill over into 1991, looking as disheveled and scarred by grotesque human greed as it did this year. It's like a disreputable plot in the soaps that drags on without end.

An expensive one.

Yet there is some consolation. Prosecutions are starting to pay off. The S&L pirates aren't having the fun they used to.

Take Edwin T. McBirney III. The 37-year-old former chairman of a Dallas savings bank has agreed to plead guilty to fraud charge and will ante up $16 million in penalties and restitution.

Then there is Don R. Dixon, 52, a fast-living Texan who has been convicted of fraud related to mishandling $41 million in loans for his personal benefit and other legal violations. No small-time punk, he owned the Vernon Savings and Loan Association of Dallas from 1982 to 1987, running the once-quiet bank into the financial muck.

A jury concluded that Dixon diverted loan funds to maintain a lavish California beach house and used bank money to pay female companions who partied with Vernon officials and directors. He also promoted, the jury decided, interstate prostitution with Vernon S&L funds.

The high living has come to an end for Dixon and other Vernon officials. Some have been indicted, convicted and sent to jail. Heavy fines and a long prison term hopefully also await Dixon. He deserves both. When his S&L was taken over, 96 percent of its loans had gone bad. The bill Dixon's losses left for the taxpayers: an estimated $1.3 billion.

Much of the corruption centered in and around Dallas. Dixon, for example, is the 71st person convicted of fraud as a result of investigations by the Dallas Bank Fraud Task Force, a busy special agency formed by the Justice Department.

There was also trouble with the ostensible regulators who oversaw things before. The looseness and irresponsibility of the S&L regulatory apparatus is exemplified with sordid clarity in a House banking committee staff report on Richard H. Hughes.

Another Dallas business executive, Hughes sat on the board that regulated savings institutions and loaned them money in four southwestern states.

Incredibly, the report alleges, Hughes borrowed up to $6 million from banks that it was his job to regulate and whose loans it was his job to approve. He was delinquent in repaying. He also tried to buy two of the S&Ls he was helping to regulate.

Not surprisingly, Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a leading S&L reformer wants to write strict regulations to prevent this sort of conflict of interest. He ought to get plenty of help.

Yet it is difficult to figure out which is worse: That the government doesn't have such regulations already -- or, considering how routinely acceptable such basic ethical standards should be for everyone, that formal, written rules are required.

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