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YOU CAN BANK ON BUSH PEOPLE'S ETHICS

Who wants an ethics investigation? Not me.

It's not that the targets aren't plump. They are ripe and starting to ooze.

You could start with a peep into Vice President Dick Cheney's secret sessions with energy industry executives called together these past months to craft an energy policy that, surprisingly enough, turned out to be all about them. At least the vice president from Halliburton cashed in his stake in the global oil-services firm first.

During the campaign, Cheney recoiled in disbelief at the suggestion that he should cash in his stock and options, should he get elected. He gave us the first glimpse into how the millionaire's club sometimes known as the Bush administration views this annoying matter of ethics and public service.

"I'd like not to have to give away all my assets in order to serve in public," he said last August. The big giveaway ended up netting him $20.6 million.

This was a preview to the slow-motion divestiture of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. His office has announced that he's finally managed to sell all his stock in Alcoa, the industrial giant he ran before moving to Washington. The stock sales took place only after O'Neill, whose job involves overseeing taxes, trade, international finance and every other economic matter that could conceivably affect an international industrial conglomerate, first said he saw no need to divest at all.

But it was worth the wait: O'Neill's stock gained as much as $62 million, according to calculations by Salon Magazine, since March, when the secretary first said he would sell.

Heck, all this makes Karl Rove, the president's chief political guru, a piker. All Rove did was meet with executives from Intel, the high-tech company, while it was seeking administration approval of a big merger. Rove happens to have owned about $100,000 of Intel stock that -- surprise! -- he hadn't sold off at the time of the sit-down.

There are some Democrats in Congress, notably Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who suggest that perhaps this might be worth looking into. You have to worry about Waxman.

For years Waxman has sat next to Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and champion subpoena-issuer (more than 1,000 and counting) of all things Clinton. Burton is now plumbing the circumstances of a fugitive former county commissioner from Miami whose 9-year-old case (involving a stolen car that wasn't stolen, a crack house and sex, need I say more?) was the subject of a 4 1/2 -hour hearing on Friday. As it happens, that case was handled by the office of a former local Florida prosecutor named Janet Reno.

Anyway, Waxman may have caught something from Burton. But let's hope not. There is no reason at all to probe the ethics of the Bush administration, for there is nothing new to be learned from it.

The broad purpose of ethics laws is to ensure that high government officials serve no one but the general public. Not their buddies in the corporate clubhouse. Not their political contributors. Not their investment managers. Not their own bottom lines.

To figure out who the Bush folk serve, you don't have to look at their portfolios. Just their policies.

The tax cut gives nearly 40 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers -- those making $373,000 or more. The energy policy gives the energy industry its decades-old wish list. The HMO policy gives the insurance industry a path out from under any real chance of being held accountable for bad medical decisions.

The tobacco policy gives the cigarette industry a chance to negotiate its way out of what was once the government's get-tough lawsuit. This came with the up-front announcement that the Justice Department suddenly thinks its own case is weak. Surely Big Tobacco cowers.

The policy on arsenic in drinking water is a tonic for the mining industry. The policy on global warming is a gift to the coal and oil industries that are busy warming the globe.

Really, who needs a fishing expedition to get at secret administration documents about their dealings on behalf of private interests? All we need to know is in the newspapers.

Newsday

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