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Coelho, Leaving House, Says He Didn’t Want to be Ethics Distraction With PM-House Leadership

June 15, 1989

Coelho, Leaving House, Says He Didn’t Want to be Ethics Distraction With PM-House Leadership Bjt

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Tony Coelho says he’s leaving the House today at peace with the fact that his career as a rising star in the Democratic Party is over, swallowed up by a furor over his personal finances.

He compares his fall from power to the time years ago, when he lost his hope for the priesthood because of epilepsy. In both cases, he says, he was misunderstood.

Misunderstood as a child, he says, when his epilepsy was considered the work of demons; misunderstood in the House, where he was best known as a political strategist and the Democrats’ fund-raiser extraordinaire.

″I don’t want the party just to win. I want the party to win for certain reasons,″ he said in an interview, citing Democratic policies including support for the handicapped.

″A lot of people dwell on the one side of me but don’t pay attention to the other side,″ he said in an interview. ″And a couple of weeks ago, they found out about the other side.″

Because he had improperly reported the financing of an investment in junk bonds, he was about to become a prime Republican target in their ethics attack.

He quit, he said, because he couldn’t stomach the possibility of giving the Republicans that advantage.

″So my ultimate political trick was to take away from them the very thing they wanted most, to use me,″ he said.

Coelho said his resignation will permit him to continue his work on behalf of fellow epileptics, without being an issue himself. He said he already has raised money to open 14 job centers for epileptics with hopes for 25 by the end of the year.

He’s sponsoring programs to educate school children about epilepsy, and raising money for a center at UCLA to study the treatment of afflicted children.

When he was young, he was considered possessed by demons and his family tried religious rituals to expunge them. Now, he feels much has been done - some with his help - to get epileptics accepted as people with handicaps who can contribute to society.

″I’ve gotten a lot of people to go public″ with their epilepsy, he said. ″Why would they go public with some controversial figure who’s coming into town? Why would they want to meet with him? They wouldn’t.″

Coelho said staying would have been unfair to his family, unfair to the Democrats and unfair to those he has tried to help.

So he’s holding a bash to mark his departure today, which is his 47th birthday.

Coelho says he hasn’t yet chosen a new career, and will spend the next three months making some speeches for money and mulling his future. Perhaps business, perhaps at a university, but probably never again running for office, he said.

It’s not the first time he’s had to change careers.

″I was right on the verge of becoming a priest when that was taken away from me. That’s when I found out about my epilepsy. ... All of a sudden at the last moment it was taken away.

″But the good lord took me from that narrow pursuit to a different type of ministry.″

In a 24-year career in the House, first as a staffer and then the last decade as a congressman, Coelho had a missionary zeal that made him a Democrat’s Democrat and a politician’s politician.

The Californian was only a freshman when he was chosen to rebuild the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the wake of the Reagan landslide of 1980. He led a strong rebound. Promoted to majority whip in 1986, he was the chief Democratic vote-counter for the 100th Congress, one of the most productive in history.

When it became clear this spring that House Speaker Jim Wright would fall and Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley would take his place, Coelho was a sure bet to become leader.

But then came the news reports about a junk bond deal. A California savings and loan official carried him for a month while he arranged the financing - half from the official’s own bank.

Coelho defends the deal, but he says his failure to report the $50,000 loan was something he couldn’t defend, not without enduring two years of press prodding and public inquiry like that which cost Wright his career.

″Once I made the mistake, I couldn’t stay here,″ he said. ″You can’t be front liner in the major leagues in politics with mistakes.″

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