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The Ethics of Henry Hyde

by Jeff Elliott

to stories on House ethics
In a week filled with shocking news, no detail was more bizarre than this: Henry Hyde will guide the House investigation into the ethics of Bill Clinton.

As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Hyde (R - Illinois) will preside over key hearings that will decide whether Congress will take the first steps toward impeachment. But the chairman has a record tarnished with dirty politics, possible coverups, and questionable ethical behavior far worse than anything of which Clinton is accused.

Yet despite his checkered past, Hyde has somehow avoided media scrutiny and criticism. Instead, he has managed to claim a role as conservative statesman: Center on the front page of the September 13 New York Times is a story headlined, "Widely Respected Conservative Will Head Inquiry."

Another irony is this: If Hyde had had his way in 1996, Internet copies of the Starr Report would have been deemed illegal pornography.

Poster boy for the Christian Coalition
Who is Henry Hyde?

A hulking man with silver-white hair, the 74 year-old Hyde uses his oratory skills honed as a Chicago trial lawyer to present some of the most conservative views in Congress. Hyde has made his Congressional career by catering to the whims of hard- right special interests such as the Christian Coalition, who consistently rates him as the best of breed. Hyde not only votes to limit abortion; he also votes against making it a crime to threaten women seeking abortions or contraceptives at women's clinics.

This week The New York Times called him a "...golden-tounged lawmaker [who] has alternately frustrated, infuriated, and trumped his peers with his ideological ferocity. But he has also earned their universal respect... in recent weeks, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed relief that if t to be a public impeachment inquiry, the best person to lead it is Mr. Hyde."

The article was long on praise and short on detail; buried deep in the story was passing mention of the law that bears his name: the infamous "Hyde Amendment." First passed when Hyde was a 1976 House freshman, it prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions unless the mother's life is at risk.

While the amendment was routinely attached to spending bills during the Reagan and Bush years, Hyde softened the restrictions when Clinton entered the White House, also permitting federal payment in cases of rape or incest. But Democrats, then in control of the White House and both sides of Congress, tried to kill the Hyde Amendment altogether.

In a 1993 confrontation on the floor, Hyde angrily snapped back at his critics. According to Hyde's profile in Congressional Quarterly ,

...First-term Democrat Cynthia A. McKinney of Georgia, who is black, said that the Hyde amendment "is nothing but a discriminatory policy against poor women who happen to be disproportionately black . . . and quite frankly, I have just about had it with my colleagues who vote against people of color, vote against the poor and vote against women."

Hyde responded: "We tell poor people, You can't have a job, you can't have a good education, you can't have a decent place to live. . . . I'll tell you what we'll do, we'll give you a free abortion because there are too many of you people, and we want to kind of refine, refine the breed. "

The women hissed. Illinois Democrat Cardiss Collins, who also is black, rushed to the microphone. "I am offended by that kind of debate," she shouted. Hyde responded, "I'm going to direct my friend to a few ministers who will tell her just what goes on in her community."

Collins demanded that Hyde's words be expunged from the record. Natcher finally brought the debate to a close, and Hyde and Collins later made peace.

Banning information about abortion and contraception
Hyde was also involved with the controversial 1996 Telecommunications Deregulation Bill, infamous for its attempt to regulate "decency" on the Internet. He didn't author that legislation, but he quickly became a crucial player.

As readers may remember, Sen. James Exon (D - Nebraska) became alarmed after watching a sensational 1995 TV show about Internet pornography and vowed to stop cyberporn. Exon then wrote a wide-ranging amendment that made it a federal crime to present information on the Internet that might be possibly considered indecent. Legal experts denounced it as blatantly unconstitutional, and even Speaker Gingrich called it "clearly a violation of free speech."

Described in a Monitor report at the time, the Exon amendment was losing ground when Hyde entered the picture on December 6, 1995. His amendment brought the House telecom companion bill in synch with Senator Exon's clause to "... restrict access to prohibited communications ..." Pushing for a quick vote from a House conference caucus -- members later said they didn't understand what they were voting for -- Hyde won by a single vote.

But Hyde wasn't done with the telecom bill. Less than a day before the final vote, Colorado Representative Patricia Schroeder discovered that he had made a last-minute addition to make it a crime to provide any information about abortion on the Internet, possibly even so much as the address or phone number of a family planning clinic. She was outraged and tried to get the wording changed. It was too late.

Monitor provided a special report on what happened next. Schroeder confronted Hyde on the House floor, and it began to look like the entire legislation, with billions of dollars at stake, might be sandbagged by this single abortion clause. Hyde backed down -- or so everyone thought at the time.

But Schroeder woke up the next morning and discovered they had been double crossed; Hyde had added a written statement to the Congressional Record that contradicted his statements made the day before.

Clinton signed the telecom bill on February 8th, complete with Hyde's abortion restrictions. The president did, however, "...object to the provisions in the Act concerning the tranmittal of abortion-related speech and information... [but] the Department of Justice has advised me of its long-standing policy that this and related abortion provisions in current law are unconstitutional and will not be enforced." The next day, Attorney General Reno sent Clinton and Gore a letter reaffirming that the government wouldn't prosecute these cases.

But should a day come that Roe v. Wade is overturned -- or a future conservative president wants to clamp down on abortion -- Hyde's little addition lies waiting like a timebomb.

The secret $20 million deal
Hyde may use sneaky parlimentary tricks to pass his ultra- conservative legislation, but such actions aren't illegal, or even considered particularly unethical. But in Hyde's past are incidents that deserve close scrutiny by investigators. Start with the funny documents found in a dumpster in 1995.

Looking for evidence of a conspiracy against him, a formal mental hospital patient searched through the trash of a Chicago suburb lawyer. His lawsuit against the attorney was quickly dismissed as baseless, but not before certain documents he had found became part of the public record.

In those documents -- which became a page one story for the Chicago Tribune on March 28, 1995 -- it was detailed how two men named Patrick Durante and James Schirott were privately made an astonishing offer from a Nevada gambling company, Primadonna Resorts. If they would only help the casino obtain an Illinois riverboat gaming license, they would be each be paid $10 million.

Both men were well-connected in the world of Illinois politics. Schirott -- one of the lawyers being sued by the dumpster diver -- was the personal attorney for both Henry Hyde and "Pate" Philip, President of the Illinois state senate. Durante was a pal of the speaker of the Illinois House. Another important detail about Durante: he was also an aide to Henry Hyde, who regularly served as liason between Hyde and Philip.

When the story came out, Hyde and other politicians expressed astonishment and scrambled to distance themselves from a potential runaway scandal. Hyde told the Chicago Sun-Times that publicity about the $ 20 million deal will "bury" any casino bid by Primadonna Resorts. State senate president Phillip insisted that neither man had approached him about a riverboat license.

Other incriminated evidence emerged. Durante allegedly misrepresented himself to a House ethics office in 1993, when he said he would be doing some consulting for a gambling outfit, "[but the] amount of time I will be putting into this venture is at best minimal." Other well-connected locals had been hired by the casino to serve as consultants or lobbyists. And Primadonna also came forward and admitted that it had illegally laundered $9 thousand in campaign contributions through Schirott and Durante, a clear violation of Illinois law.

Durante defended his actions to the Chicago Sun-Times by saying that he and his partner weren't lobbyists, but instead "project managers." The $20 mil, he said, was to staff and run an office for for 20 years. Durante told the paper he "inadvertently" sent funds from Primadonna to a half-dozen candidates, but said he informed recipients of the origin of the funds.

But curiously, the tale abruptly ends here. Although the head of the Illinois Gaming Board said "the excessive amount involved raises concerns about the possibility of influence-buying," possible ties between the casino and Hyde or either of the top two state officials were left hanging. Requests to the state attorney general and election board for an inquiry were denied. The incriminating documents found in the trash were sealed by court order. End of story.

Why wasn't an investigation pursued? None of Clinton's scandals -- either real or the sort imagined by the conspiracy crowd -- approaches the revelation that Hyde's lawyer and aide teamed up to secretly collect $20 million from gambling interests. But lacking a federal or state inquiry, the story dropped from the headlines in 1995 and hasn't been mentioned since.

"There should have been have been an investigation," says Gary Raskin, Director of the Congressional Accountability Project. "It's unbelievable that there wasn't one. It's another example of how the House Ethics Committee doesn't work." (See related story.)

That the press didn't pursue the matter is proof that Hyde's one lucky fellow. That his career didn't end in the scandal that emerged the next year is nothing short of incredible.

Part of failed S&L that cost taxpayers about $72 million
In 1996, Hyde was sued by the federal government for gross negligence between 1981 and 1984, when he was a board member of Clyde Federal Savings and Loan, which went belly-up and cost taxpayers about $72 million. Hyde was the only member of Congress to be charged in any S&L scandal.

Hyde claimed that he hadn't broken laws and had little involvement with the board, but as reported in the Monitor then, the minutes of the board meetings proved that he was in up to his neck.

The little Chicago suburban S&L was in the thick of the shady wheeling and dealing well- documented in the book, "Inside Job." For example, while Hyde was on the board, Clyde S&L loaned $5 million for a bogus condo project brokered by the notorious J. William Oldenburg, even though Oldenburg was charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. As noted in the Monitor story, Hyde refused to say whether he ever knew Oldenburg, who was famous for throwing lavish outdoor parties where helicopters rained orchids on guests.

Hyde was also directly involved with Clyde S&L's risky options trading, where the failed thrift lost $10 million. These deals were illegal under federal law. Hyde also voted repeatedly to allow the S&L to speculate on the financial futures market.

According to an excellent investigative story published in the July, 1996 Illinois Legal Times, Hyde indignantly claimed he was "about as arm's length as you can get" from important decion making by the board. He also claimed the S&L was in good shape during his tenure, then later claimed he wasn't aware of the problems. But authors Bruce and David Rubenstein document that Hyde was present at a 1982 board meeting where a letter from a Federal Home Loan Bank Board supervisor was read aloud, warning that the S&L would be insolvent in about a year. Federal investigators later said that Hyde and the others on the board "approved trades which they knew, or should have known, were irrational."

Hyde wasn't the only S&L board member guilty of bad judgement, of course, and many were also politicians. But he was the only member of Congress to be involved in one of these crooked affairs, then directly profit at the taxpayer's expense.

Money flowed into the Hyde campaign funds from the financial industry and others associated with Clyde. The head of the S&L, Sylvia Miedema, contributed $5,850 during the 1980s, $750 of that just four months after board member Hyde had moved to bump up the interest rate on her deferred compensation.

After he left the board, Hyde became one of the leaders in Congress fighting S&L regulation as the crisis deepened in the 1980s. Also in that time, his campaign took in $115,000 from the financial industry, including some from failed S&Ls and their executives.

Hyde also escaped liablity in the S&L suit against the Clyde S&L board. It was settled out of court for only $850,000 -- slightly more than one cent on the dollar. Henry Hyde was not required to pay anything.

Gary Ruskin wrote a letter to the chairman of the FDIC last year, raising several interesting points. Although 1 out of 4 investigations into the S&L collapse led to criminal charges, only 6 percent of the failed Illinois thrifts spawned a criminal case.

Ruskin also noted that the Clyde case was settled without any pre-trial discovery process, crucial to determine liability. Ruskin pointed out that this case in particular should be closely examined:

Because Henry Hyde is a member of Congress, and the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, his conduct must be held to a higher standard, and should receive a heightened level of review. Members of Congress should avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The public should be able to scrutinize all of the records in the Clyde case to determine whether Chairman Hyde's conduct meets this standard. Chairman Hyde has repeatedly claimed that he is free of any wrongdoing in the case. If so, then he should welcome placing all Clyde materials in the public domain in an effort to clear his own name.


Has Chairman Hyde used his position as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to escape responsibility in the civil suit against him and Clyde's other directors? When the FDIC settles with a prominent elected official, shouldn't it provide the public a more thorough explanation regarding the process, legal reasoning, and findings of the case? It would be unacceptable for the FDIC not to insist that Chairman Hyde explain his business dealings. Furthermore, it is important that the public record accurately reflect the personal responsibilities of Henry Hyde and the other members of the board of directors in the Clyde's failure.

True mischief deserved scrutiny in Henry Hyde's office
Whether Hyde abused his power to escape liability in the Clyde case is a matter deserving its own investigation, as are the suspicious circumstances surrounding the $20 million promised to his associates.

One irony here is that all the events described in this article took place in the early years of the Whitewater investigation, which now has faded stature as a Clinton scandal. While Kenneth Starr was investigating Troopergate, Filegate, Donorgate, Fostergate, and Bimbogate, true mischief deserved scrutiny in Henry Hyde's office on Capitol Hill.

But the greatest irony is this: The first salvo in the conservative War On Clinton came in January, 1994, as the Republican Policy Committee issued a press release on Whitewater. It was filled with the sort of sweeping allegations that are still found in today's War On Clinton, and the press repeated most of the charges as if they deserved serious consideration.

Few noticed that the GOP document was released under the name of the one man who really deserved investigating: Henry J. Hyde.

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Albion Monitor September 15, 1998 (

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