Conflicts of Interest Could Challenge Sept. 11 Panel

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Members of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks have numerous professional ties to industries and organizations that could come under their scrutiny, financial disclosure reports show.

The affiliations create possible conflicts that could pose challenges for the panel as it deals with a broad mandate, a tight schedule and limited funding.

At least three of the 10 commissioners serve as directors of international financial or consulting firms, five work for law firms that represent airlines and three have ties to the U.S. military or defense contractors, according to personal financial disclosures they were required to submit.

The topics the commission may investigate include intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, aviation, the flow of assets to terrorist organizations and the U.S. government's response on the day of the attacks.

Beyond business, the 10 commissioners also have strong ties to the major political parties, and the deadline for their report -- May 2004 -- falls during the next presidential election campaign.

President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress chose five Republican members. Democratic congressional leaders chose five Democrats. Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste has represented Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe; commissioner Fred F. Fielding has done legal work for two of Bush's leading "Pioneer" fund-raisers.

Already, some activists have charged that the commission is compromised by conflicts in the area of aviation.

Five commissioners -- Ben-Veniste, Fielding, former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, Democratic former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana and Republican former Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington -- work for law firms that, collectively, have represented clients including Boeing, New Orleans International Airport and Delta, United, American, Evergreen International and Spirit airlines.

"It is simply a failure on the part of the people making the selections to consider the talented pool of non-conflicted individuals," said Bryan Doyle, project manager for the Aviation Integrity Project, a watchdog group in Chicago.

Thompson has said he is willing to recuse himself from matters related to American Airlines. Ben-Veniste said he will steer clear of aviation matters "in an abundance of caution" because other lawyers in his large firm represent airlines.

Members are expected to steer clear of discussions that might present even the appearance of a conflict, according to commission chairman Thomas H. Kean.

Potential conflicts were inevitable, experts say, since the commission consists of successful public figures who work at major companies and serve on corporate boards.

"Given the fact that you want extremely well-qualified people who are also knowledgeable, then you're going to run into these kinds of conflicts," said Celia Wexler, research director for Common Cause.

Bill Allison, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, said presidents and members of Congress should consider reaching into academia when appointing future commissions to minimize potential conflicts.

The commission holds its first public hearings Monday and Tuesday in New York City. It is seeking $11 million in additional federal funding, on top of the $3 million budgeted by Congress.

The question of conflict has already created some headaches.

Bush's first choice for chairman, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, resigned after questions about his ties to corporations and foreign governments. Bush then turned to Kean, a Republican former two-term governor of New Jersey.

Kean and seven other commissioners filed financial disclosure forms with the Senate by Wednesday's deadline.

Thompson received a 90-day extension to file his report. Roemer does not have to file because he was a member of Congress, with a report on file, until early January.

Some say the same factors that produce potential conflicts may make the commissioners especially qualified.

Commissioner Jamie Gorelick said she is prepared to recuse herself if the commission explores actions made by the Justice or Defense departments while she worked for them.

But she added, "As I've said to the families (of victims), I come with broad and deep experience in the areas of law enforcement, defense and our intelligence community, which I think will be helpful to the commission."