Sunday, June 29, 1997
Big money, golf trips
OK if you talk

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Probably I'm just too simpleminded to understand why politicians are more vulnerable to influence than we journalists.

Ohio Rep. Mike Fox was stripped of his job as chairman of the House Education Committee on Thursday for accepting a $406 plane ticket and lodging from a Columbus lobbyist. The Fairfield Township Republican said he thought he'd reimbursed lobbyist Tom Strussion for his trip to Scottsdale, Ariz.

''I screwed up,'' Mr. Fox told The Enquirer's Sandy Theis. ''I thought I paid him back, and apparently I did not. When I realized my mistake, I took care of it.''

Politicians in the houses of lobbyists are like mice. You never see just one. So we may as well get ready for more traps to be sprung in the statehouse. This would be an excellent opportunity for everybody else to be smug and sanctimonious, if only we were pure.

For instance, Cincinnati-area members of Congress and their staffs took $71,902 worth of entirely legal trips last year, paid by private interest groups. Junkets are allowed if there's some ''official purpose,'' such as a speaking engagement.

And therein lies a loophole big enough to throw Sam Donaldson through.

The aroma of money

Now, of course, journalists are not using public money and there's no law against it, but in the words of conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick, ''The practice smells to high heaven.''

Of course, he was describing the honoraria of elected officials, not his own 20 to 25 paid speeches a year. ABC's Cokie Roberts has addressed the American Automobile Association, Mortgage Bankers Association of America and National Restaurant Association. All for a fee.

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports that in 1994 when ABC's PrimeTime was about to air a report on a congressional junket, it discovered that host Sam Donaldson had accepted an honorarium of $30,000 from the same group, a coalition of insurance companies.

It's not all business. Newsweek's Eleanor Clift charged the ACLU $1,000 to speak at its annual dinner here. The interests of the ACLU are just as likely to be in the news as banks or restaurants.

So maybe senators can golf with insurance executives and still make detached decisions about their regulations. And maybe Sam is perfectly comfortable with his ability to bite the hand that feeds him. Maybe they are better than the rest of us. But, of course, we doubt that.

Jealous and simpleminded

None of the three network anchors accepts honoraria, even though Peter Jennings has less opportunity to praise or snipe than influential gasbags, such as George Will or David Brinkley, both of whom have made it clear that their fees are their own business.

After all, they don't make laws. Simply public opinion.

The Enquirer forbids newsroom employees to accept speakers' fees, and our parent company, Gannett, has a copious ethics policy ''to avoid even any appearance of wrongdoing.''

So far, my virtue is untested. Nobody has offered to pay me $30,000. Nobody has offered to fly me to his rancho to play golf. Although after I wrote about the Southern Baptist boycott of Disney, somebody telephoned offering to send me straight to hell.

Most everybody in town knows if they want to hear my talking-toilet-seat story, I'll be glad to show up at their meeting and tell it free of charge. So probably I'm not only simpleminded but jealous. And although Mike Fox once gave me a refrigerator magnet and a red-white-and-blue pencil at the Butler County Fair, I'll try not to be unduly sympathetic.

But I can't help noticing that it's too bad he couldn't have appeared at a rubber chicken luncheon or a TV talk show in Scottsdale. Then it would have been legal, ethical and newsworthy.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.