- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002

Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, the vice presidential candidate whose reputation as a rhetorical straight-shooter earned him a regular slot on the "Imus" show, wilted in front of the microphone Friday morning. Mr. Lieberman, chairman of the Enron-investigating Governmental Affairs Committee, became utterly flummoxed by Don Imus' persistent questions over a simple matter: Will the senator be calling former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to testify about the role he and his firm, Citigroup (where he serves as chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors), played in Enron's financial debacle, which cost investors more than $50 billion?

For the first 10 years he spent in Washington, Mr. Lieberman, it's worth recalling, was a relatively unknown backbencher from a small state. He first leapt onto the national political scene as a moral crusader who became the first Democratic senator with enough spinal rectitude to criticize President Clinton on the Senate floor for his improper relationship with a White House intern. "Such behavior is not just inappropriate," Mr. Lieberman said in September 1998 after the president acknowledged his sleaziness, "It is immoral. And it is harmful."

Risibly understating Mr. Rubin's ethically questionable intervention on behalf of Enron last year, on Friday Mr. Lieberman acknowledged to Mr. Imus, "There is some evidence that has been public that Bob Rubin did call someone in the Treasury Department in the final weeks before Enron bellied up on Dec. 2 and went into bankruptcy." In fact, Mr. Rubin personally called the Democratic undersecretary of the treasury for domestic finance to lobby him to intervene with the credit-rating agencies. Those firms were poised to downgrade Enron's debt rating, a move that likely would have precipitated bankruptcy, jeopardized hundreds of millions of dollars in unsecured loans Citigroup extended to Enron and deprived Citigroup's investment bank of its share of nearly $100 million in fees from an Enron-saving merger.

As if Mr. Rubin's smoothly, if unsuccessfully, conducted strong-arm tactics weren't enough of an outrage worthy of the Senate's attention, Mr. Lieberman complicated the matter by misplacing his moral compass. In an exercise of moral equivalence, he then told Mr. Imus, "There is also evidence that a bunch of other people at Enron called people like Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, Secretary of Commerce Don Evans and others in the White House." Regarding the Enron hearings he will hold in the fall, Mr. Lieberman said, "If we have any reason to believe it will be constructive to call any of these people Rubin, [Enron Chairman and CEO] Ken Lay, Evans, anybody else we'll do."

Hard to believe, but the once-morally-astute Mr. Lieberman now seems utterly incapable of recognizing the screaming differences between two morally distinct camps. To what moral principles does Mr. Lieberman now subscribe that would permit him to use such innuendo to equate the role of Mr. Evans, who refused Mr. Lay's desperate entreaty to lobby the private credit-rating agencies, with the role of Mr. Rubin, the $40-million-per-year influence-peddler who was only too happy to do Enron's bidding?

Even his good friend Mr. Imus wasn't buying such subterfuge, telling Mr. Lieberman, "I wish you were here so I could get my hands around your neck."

By all means, Mr. Lieberman, let us have a panel of Messrs. Rubin, Lay and Evans. And let us have it before the November elections. The public will surely understand the moral and ethical distinctions.

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