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Lawmaker's past should disqualify him from post, critics say

WASHINGTON—After a checkered career that's seen disgrace and redemption—impeachment as a federal judge followed by election to Congress seven times—Rep. Alcee Hastings stands poised for a position of considerable clout.

At 70, the Florida Democrat may well become the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January.

But an ever-widening chorus of critics is slamming the possibility that an impeached federal judge with millions of dollars in legal debt could be tapped to lead the committee that oversees U.S intelligence programs.

The cries against selecting Hastings, which started as Republican talking points before the midterm election, got louder last week, and the choice of intelligence chairman is being cast as a critical decision for House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, who pledged she'd lead the "most honest, ethical" Congress.

The editorial page of the left-leaning New Republic joined the New York Times and USA Today in railing against Hastings, widely believed to be Pelosi's choice. The magazine suggests the move would be "substantively foolish and politically tone-deaf." And 18 members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a powerful bloc of centrist Democrats in the House, sent a letter to Pelosi urging her to stick with the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, California Rep. Jane Harman, a fellow Blue Dog.

Hastings suggests his critics are off base. He notes that he's been on the intelligence committee for seven years and hasn't divulged any state secrets.

"If our secrecy and integrity is an issue, I'm here to tell you I have a whole lot of secrets in my head," he said in a recent interview.

The chairmanship has gained new significance as the quality of U.S. intelligence has become an issue in the debate over the war in Iraq. Hastings, along with Pelosi, voted against the war.

The decision is Pelosi's to make, and she's not tipping her hand. But she's made little secret of her disdain for Harman, whom she considers not tough enough on the GOP. In recent weeks, however, a third candidate, Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, has emerged. Reyes, observers note, would be the sole Hispanic to chair a House committee.

Asked about the speculation, Reyes, a former career Border Patrol agent in El Paso, said he'd wait until Pelosi reveals her choice.

"That is a decision that is entirely hers," he said.

Pelosi's aides would say only that an announcement will come in January.

Hastings also has the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has gained considerable clout in the incoming Democratic-led House. Members of the caucus have said they expect Hastings to get the post, but several influential black lawmakers appeared resigned recently to the possibility that Hastings may be passed over.

Asked Thursday whether he's confident that Hastings will chair the committee, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, elected by his peers to be House majority whip, said, "I have no real hopes about it."

Observers are split on how the drubbing Pelosi took last week in backing majority leader-hopeful Rep. John Murtha—who was named an "unindicted conspirator" in the 1980 Abscam scandal and has faced questions about aggressive earmarking—will play in her decision. Pelosi was undaunted by her support for Murtha, telling reporters Thursday that she stood proudly behind her endorsement, though he lost the election.

"You're going to see Nancy Pelosi throughout her leadership stepping out and making tough decisions," said Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Florida Democrat and a member of the black caucus. "I believe Judge Hastings has just as good a chance of becoming chairman of Intelligence."

For his part, Hastings suggested that he's "probably the cleanest person in Congress" after years of scrubbing by federal investigators.

"I don't know anybody who has had their life gone over for nine years and they didn't find anything," Hastings said. "There were no Swiss bank accounts. What they found was I drank liquor and I had some girlfriends. That's not a crime."

Hastings' woes began in 1981, two years after he was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter. Florida's first black federal judge, Hastings and a friend, Washington lawyer William Borders, were accused of soliciting a $150,000 bribe in exchange for a soft sentence for two men convicted of racketeering.

Hastings was cleared by a jury, but a panel of federal judges recommended that he be impeached and the House in 1988 agreed by a vote of 413-3. The Senate removed him from the bench a year later but did not bar Hastings from holding office again. He was elected to Congress in 1992.

Colorful, quotable and hugely popular in his district, Hastings has been easily re-elected, drawing no opposition this year.

He remains very much involved in local Broward County issues even as he serves as president of a European peacekeeping coalition.

Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina said Hastings enjoys a "broad base of support" among Democrats. He derided using an impeachment trial as a criterion for suitability, noting Hastings has resisted calls by some Democratic activists to launch impeachment hearings against President Bush.

"Impeachment is a political circus," Watt said.

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Maria Recio and James Rosen contributed.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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