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Senate to hear sex-harassment case in private

Male solidarity will ensure hearings stay closed, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The United States Senate may be celebrated for relentless televised hearings to investigate the alleged peccadilloes of others. But where the ethical transgressions of its own members are concerned, these are to be examined only by itself, behind firmly closed doors.

Any doubts about the Senate's other function as the cosiest club in Washington were dispelled on Wednesday evening, when it voted not to hold public hearings into the two-decade-long history of sexual harassment by one of its most senior and powerful Republican members, Bob Packwood of Oregon.

The Packwood affair has been a thorn in the Senate's side almost from the day he was re-elected to a fifth six-year term in November 1992. A week before, Mr Packwood had denied detailed allegations from several women to a Washington Post reporter, and the newspaper had agreed to hold the story until after the vote.

A few days later, however, the Post went public, and Mr Packwood admitted virtually everything. But he refused to resign and amid the outcry the Senate was forced to act. Complaints had come from women's groups - and Democrats, who were convinced that had the truth come out before the election, Mr Packwood would have lost.

But its distaste was evident from the pace of the investigation. The Ethics Committee, composed of three Republicans and three Democrats, spent over 30 months collecting depositions and documents and taking testimony from Mr Packwood, all the while hoping the unwanted affair would vanish.

Finally it had to conclude there was "substantial, credible evidence" that Mr Packwood had made unwelcome sexual advances to 17 women between 1968 and 1980, had asked lobbyists to provide a job for his former wife and had doctored personal diaries before they could be subpoenaed. But the committee refused to sanction public hearings. There matters would have stood, had not Barbara Boxer, a first-term Democrat from California, broken the unwritten rules of the club by forcing a floor debate.

Mr Packwood's appalled friends rallied round. Bob Dole, the Majority Leader, denounced Ms Boxer as "the most partisan Senator" he had ever known. Not to be outdone in partisanship, the Republican chairman of the Ethics Committee threatened at one point to call public hearings on the past misadventures of Democratic Senators, starting (where else?) with Edward Kennedy and Chappaquiddick.

But after five uncomfortable hours of discussion, Mr Packwood's peers spared him from a public indignity similar to the one that they heaped upon the Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, and Professor Anita Hill, in a sexual harassment controversy that was less clear-cut than the charges against the Oregon Senator.

The final vote of 52 to 48 was more or less along party lines. Only three Republicans, including only one of the party's three female Senators, voted with the Democrats. One Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of New York, a close friend of Mr Packwood, voted against public hearings.

But the case is not closed. Paradoxically, the decision to keep matters private has increased the pressure on the Ethics Committee to mete out stern punishment and dispel any suggestion of a cover-up. This could range from censure to stripping Mr Packwood of his influential chairmanship of the Finance Committee.

Few, however, believe that he will be expelled from the Senate altogether. In a gentleman's club, after all, a member does the decent thing himself.