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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist and the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, which airs Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Bill Press: No free ride for Bush officials

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- It has been too quiet in Washington since Bill Clinton left. No scandals. No hearings. No investigations. But that may soon change.

Democrats on Capitol Hill, led by California's Henry Waxman, are talking about turning the tables on Republicans: holding hearings, conducting investigations and going after the Bush White House with the same zeal that Dan Burton and Al D'Amato once demonstrated when they pounced on Clinton and company. And there's plenty of fuel for the fire. The actions of three top administration officials -- Karl Rove, Paul O'Neill and Dick Cheney -- have raised serious questions about possible financial conflicts.

O'Neill, former CEO of Alcoa, was named Treasury Secretary last December 20. He knew, if confirmed, he'd have to get rid of his $100 million in Alcoa stock and stock options -- which he finally promised to do on March 25. But he still hasn't acted. Meanwhile, Alcoa stock has jumped 30 percent.

Legitimate questions for O'Neill: What's taking him so long? What actions has he taken as Treasury secretary that might have benefited Alcoa? And how much did his portfolio increase in value while he delayed selling his stock?

Vice-President Dick Cheney is already subject of an investigation begun by the General Accounting Office, at the request of congressional Democrats. The GAO is looking into alleged improper ties between Cheney's energy task force and lobbyists for the energy industry. Since all sessions were secret, the GAO has requested copies of minutes and notes with outside lobbyists, but the White House has refused to turn them over.

Legitimate questions for Cheney: Were oil and gas industry lobbyists allowed to write their own plan? Why won't the White House release records of who met with whom and what they talked about? What are they trying to hide?

But Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser has the most to explain. Like O'Neill, he waited months before selling his extensive stock holdings in many companies, including Intel, Pfizer and Enron, on June 7. Before the sale, he met in the White House with executives of Intel, who were seeking administration approval of a corporate merger, which they later received; conferred with representatives of Pfizer who are in opposition to the Democratic version of the patients' bill of rights; and sought the advice of Ken Lay, Chairman of Enron, on energy policy.

Legitimate questions for Rove: Why did he wait so long? What influence, if any, did he have on the energy task force, the Intel merger, or the president's continued opposition to the Kennedy-McCain bill of rights? How has he benefited financially from decisions he was involved in?

So far, no hearings have been scheduled. But even the possibility of hearings has made Republicans apoplectic: accusing Democrats of merely seeking political payback.

Nonsense. Republicans must realize that what goes around, comes around. If these were Clinton appointees, Dan Burton would have already tarred and feathered them in public without waiting for the facts. And besides, for eight years, Republicans repeated their mantra of "congressional oversight." It was their duty under the Constitution, they insisted. They had no choice but to investigate, and investigate, and investigate the Clinton administration.

Did the need for congressional oversight disappear once Democrats took control of the Senate? No way. Not when there are concerns about potential conflicts of interest -- which is certainly the case with Karl Rove, Paul O'Neill and Dick Cheney. These are serious questions and they must be looked into. It's the only way Congress can do its job of making sure leaders of the executive branch are doing their jobs in compliance with the law. There should be no free ride for Bush administration officials.

At this point, before we know all the facts, there's no reason to believe that Rove, O'Neill or Cheney did anything illegal. But it may have been unethical. And it sure was sloppy and arrogant. They knew what the rules were, they just chose not to follow them. And, in so doing, they created at least the appearance of wrongdoing -- which is just what President Bush promised would never happen.

In swearing in his White House staff last January 22, the president said: "I expect every member of this administration to stay well within the boundaries that define legal and ethical conduct. This means avoiding even the appearance of problems."

Promises made, promises broken. Let the hearings begin






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