Senator Examining Alexander's Finances, But Others Wonder What
He's Looking For By Mark Pitsch
Washington--Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio, apparently is investigating the finances of Lamar Alexander, and may delay a vote by the Labor and Human Resources Committee on his nomination to be Secretary of Education.
But aides to other committee members, education lobbyists, and Mr. Alexander himself said last week that they are mystified as to what Mr. Metzenbaum is looking for.
At a confirmation hearing two weeks ago, Mr. Metzenbaum told Mr. Alexander that "stories have surfaced about your financial background," but he refused requests from both Mr. Alexander and other panel members to elaborate, saying that he wanted to investigate the matter further before discussing it.
Senator Nancy Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas, chastized her colleague, saying, "It's unfortunate to even raise a question in public if you're not prepared to go forward with it." Numerous committee aides echoed Ms. Kassebaum's concerns last week.
Mr. Metzenbaum refused through a spokesman to disclose the matter under study, but in a statement said, "The fact that I've been asked to inquire into Mr. Alexander's finances should not be interpreted as a reflection on the Governor. At this point, I know of nothing that would detract from the positive recommendations and support that have already come forward."
Mr. Metzenbaum did offer one possible clue at the hearing, where he asked Mr. Alexander about "Channel One," the classroom news show operated by Whittle Communications.
He asked the nominee if hethought educators should be concerned about the 2 minutes of paid advertising included in the 12-minute program.
Mr. Alexander responded that he would be more concerned about potential bias in the news coverage.
Mr. Alexander acknowledged his ties to Whittle when he told the Senator: "Do I think Channel One is a good idea? Yes. Am I objective? No.''
The nominee helped Whittle set up a regional magazine, but ceased acting as a consultant to the firm in 1988 after becoming president of the University of Tennessee.
During the time since Mr. Alexander assumed the presidency, there has been concern in the Volunteer State over that relationship and other outside business dealings.
Democrats in particular have criticized Mr. Alexander for sitting on corporate boards that did business with the university.
State Senator Steve Cohen, a Democrat, has repeatedly introduced legislation that would bar high-ranking officials on the public payroll from serving on public boards.
He said last week that Mr. Alexander's participation on the boards of First Tennessee Bank and Martin Marietta Corporation represent a conflict of interest because First Tennessee is one of ut's banks and because Martin Marietta has a multimillion-dollar research contract with the school.
But Mr. Alexander said his board memberships have been open and are in line with state tradition.
"I did not sit on any board as president of the University of Tennessee unless I received prior written approval of the state attorney general," Mr. Alexander said, noting that Attorney General Charles Burson is a Democrat.
In 1988, he dropped some real-estate and business holdings and severed some business ties, including those with Whittle, after the attorney general's review. Moreover, Mr. Alexander said, he has donated much of his corporate-board earnings to charity and to ut scholarships and professorships.
According to financial-disclosure documents, Mr. Alexander earned $152,352 from ut last year. In addition, he earned $37,000 in honoraria, $17,942 in partnership income, and $109,720 from being a director on five corporate boards.
The other financial controversy in Mr. Alexander's past erupted in 1989 over a deferred-compensation plan for ut's top administrative and athletic brass, which Mr. Burson declared illegal under Tennessee law because it had not been approved by the state treasurer or comptroller.
Mr. Alexander participated in the program as ut president and approved it as governor, but state Treasurer Steve Adams, who investigated the fund, said Mr. Alexander did not do so to benefit personally. Supporters of the program said it was needed to attract quality professionals.
The Boston Globe has reported that Mr. Metzenbaum is looking into the possibility that the nominee used Tennessee Republican Party money for personal use, a charge that Tommy Hopper, chairman of the state party, and Mr. Alexander have denied.
"I'm kind of confused about that because we're the only ones who could confirm it," Mr. Hopper said, adding that he has not been contacted by Mr. Metzenbaum's office.
"Of course, I didn't use political funds for personal use," Mr. Alexander said. "That may be O.K. in Washington, but it's not in Tennessee."
Mr. Alexander refused to use state funds for party purposes, Mr. Hopper added.
The Secretary-designate said he went to Mr. Metzenbaum's office the day after the Feb. 6 hearing to say he would cooperate fully if the Senator wanted to examine his finances.
Mr. Metzenbaum's office has not been in touch since, he said, adding, "I assume I answered all of his questions then."
The Office of Government Ethics told the Labor and Human Resources Committee that Mr. Alexander "would be in compliance with applicable laws and regulations governing conflicts of interest."
An Education Department lawyer advised the ethics office that, once confirmed, Mr. Alexander planned to disqualify himself from matters related to ut, colleges and organizations he has received honoraria from, and businesses he has a financial interest in, as well as to resign from all boards of directors and advisory boards.
However, the lawyer wrote, Mr. Alexander has asked White House officials to allow him to continue to serve as chairman of the steering committee of the National Summit on Mathematics Assessment until it is convened this April.