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Is Tony Coelho Still Immune from Scrutiny?

Gore Names Ex-Congressman Who Resigned Over Ethics To Head Campaign, But Reporters Go Soft

The Gore campaign drew little media attention with their May 11 announcement of a new campaign chairman: ex-Rep. Tony Coelho, a media darling before he resigned in 1989. The Washington Post found Coelho failed to report on his financial disclosure forms a $50,000 loan from S&L executive Thomas Spiegel to buy $100,000 in junk bonds from Drexel Burnham Lambert. As head of the Democrats' House campaign committee, Coelho specialized in soliciting corrupt S&L barons. CNN reporter Brooks Jackson's book Honest Graft noted Coelho had free use of the yacht of top S&L crook Don Dixon with free food and drinks to entertain contributors.

Try to imagine how the network news would cover a politician who resigned rather than face ethics probes by the House or the media if they were named to head a GOP campaign. Or if they named one of the top check-bouncers of the House bank (Coelho made the Top 22 with almost $300,000 in hot checks). A non-story? But the Coelho news did not merit an evening or morning news story on ABC, CBS, or NBC, although it did appear on CNN and MSNBC.

Coelho's appointment drew little to no ethical scrutiny on CNN's Inside Politics on May 11. Bruce Morton's profile glossed over it: "In Congress, Tony Coelho rose like a rocket...But reports surfaced he had failed to disclose the purchase of some junk bonds, and in 1989 perhaps mindful of the scandal which had dogged Speaker Jim Wright, he resigned....Coelho was never formally accused of anything improper."

In a discussion with anchor Bernard Shaw, White House reporter John King said the Gore camp wanted to send a signal they were getting organized: "Not a sense of panic, but certainly a sense of urgency, that they need to bring in what one senior official told me a short time ago was 'an adult' to run the campaign," to referee staff disputes. King repeated the line three days later on the same show: "One of the reasons they have brought in Tony Coelho is to have a so-called adult in the room."

The news magazines weren't much better:

Time barely touched on Coelho ("an affable and genu- inely scandalous party veteran") in Michael Duffy's breathless tribute to Tipper's big role in the campaign.

U.S. News & World Report's "Washington Whispers" briefly mentioned it: "New Gore campaign honcho Tony Coelho is shaking up the veep's crowd with his maverick but winning style."

In Newsweek, Howard Fineman broached the subject several pages into his sympathetic cover story on Al and Tipper: "Coelho is a warm-hearted elbow-grabber widely liked in Washington, but his appointment nonetheless has the potential to be problematic....Coelho himself is an insider's insider who left the Hill a decade ago rather than face an ethics inquiry over a bank loan he'd gotten from a beleaguered savings and loan. A Justice Department probe resulted in a clean bill, but Coelho is still remembered in Washington for his role in assembling a very state-of-the-art Democratic money-raising machine in the '80s. That makes him an odd choice for a candidate whose worst moments as veep have come in answer to questions about fund-raising." (Fineman echoed that on MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams.)

Reagan aides (for example, Edwin Meese) also received "clean bills" in official probes ten years ago, but that's not how reporters spun it. Fineman's bias has lessened since he mourned in the June 5, 1989 Newsweek: "Coelho is the most dramatic victim yet in the Age of Accusation that now dominates American politics." A week later, the magazine's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" gave Coelho an up arrow: "Martyr to the cause of decency." How can the media just pick up the praise where they left off? - Tim Graham