U.s. Opens Probe Of Wright Finances Justice Dept. To Decide Whether Grand Jury Investigation Is Warranted

Posted: May 31, 1989

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, which investigates charges of wrongdoing by public officials, has opened a preliminary probe of embattled House Speaker Jim Wright's finances, department officials said yesterday.

Previously, the department's position was that it would await the outcome of proceedings against Wright in the House, where he has been charged by the ethics committee with 69 instances of violating House rules.

No explanation was immediately available for the policy switch, which means the Justice Department will now determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a formal grand jury investigation.

Wright, a Texas Democrat, said yesterday he wanted the House ethics committee to act on his request for dismissal of some charges against him. At the same time, he left it unclear whether he planned, as widely predicted, to resign.

"I think I know what I should do," Wright said yesterday.

There had been speculation he would resign as speaker today, the day before the ethics committee is due to consider his lawyers' motion to throw out the two main charges against him.

However, the death yesterday at 88 of Claude Pepper, a widely respected Florida Democrat and most senior member of the House, could have an effect on both Wright's and the committee's plans.

Pepper's body is to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda tomorrow, Wright announced.

The committee has charged Wright with using bulk sales of his book to evade limits on speaking fees and accepting gifts worth $145,000 from his Texas friend George Mallick that were barred under House rules.

Wright has been under pressure to resign and spare House Democrats further turmoil over the 10-month investigation into his financial affairs.

Not waiting for Wright's final decision, some of his own lieutenants are scrambling to move up in the ranks. The pressure on Wright and the power game were made all the more intense by the announcement last weekend that Rep. Tony Coelho of California, the House Democratic whip, would be resigning. Coelho's resignation followed reports he earned nearly $7,000 from a junk bond investment for which he never had to put up any of his own money.

If Wright resigns, the current Democratic leader, Tom Foley of Washington, is expected to step into his shoes without opposition. Jockeying already is under way for Coelho's post as well as that of majority leader.

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