October 23, 2000

An improper use of power

October 20, 2000

U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor says Sam Neill is digging dirt and slinging mud in their current campaign.

The campaign has been a low one, to be sure, but the regrettable tactics have not been limited to Neill.

Taylor is no slouch at name-calling and exaggerated charges against his opponent.

Moreover, it is Taylor who could do the most to redirect the focus to issues that matter to Western North Carolina voters, by agreeing to a debate.

Instead, the five-term incumbent has created one smoke screen after the other to divert attention from the valid questions brought to light in the campaign. They include questions about his pattern of avoiding property taxes, the lending practices of his bank, his business investments in Russia and his profiting from a federal rent subsidy program.

All of these, to hear Taylor tell it, arise from Neill's astonishing power to seat grand juries, investigate business in Russia, garnish a congressman's wages and tell newspapers what to write. If that doesn't stick, Taylor wants government authorities to investigate the press.

A strange diversionary tactic was the Taylor campaign's attempt to plant a story about the origins of news reports on his Blue Ridge Savings Bank.

Taylor's supporters, including his friends at a conservative weekly, the Asheville Tribune, are hustling the charge that stories by the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer were based on a report "stolen" from the bank.

The congressman offers no proof of the charge. Indeed, his attorney backed off from even making it when a Times-News reporter pressed him to say on the record what he was getting at.

Officials from Blue Ridge Savings say questions from the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers last month indicated the reporters had access to a confidential Office of Thrift Supervision report from 1996.

"When I realized somebody had that report, I knew we were required to report that fact to the OTS," Long said Wednesday. "We made no requests. Whatever OTS does is a matter of them carrying out their duties."

That puts it in perspective. There has been no confirmation of an investigation into the newspapers' gathering of information. It would be highly unusual for a law enforcement agency to seek charges against a news organization for printing accurate, newsworthy information - whether the media outlet is the Asheville Tribune or the Charlotte Observer.

Taylor and Long know this, of course. It serves their purpose to imply something nefarious about how newspapers got the information. They hope that turns the voters' eyes away from the underlying stories about Taylor's bank.

But the episode reveals something more troubling about Taylor and his tactics. It appears that the powerful congressman is pressuring the Justice Department to mount an investigation into how newspapers got stories critical of him.

That ought to outrage and frighten every voter in Western North Carolina.

Copyright 2000 Times-News