Handicapping Dean (Again)

Last week, writing on primary campaigns, I said, “the guy at the front of the pack is going to find a lot of buckshot in his ass.”

Howard Dean, running as the heir apparent, may need a well-trained team of tweezer specialists working under high-wattage halogen bulbs to get the lead out after this story:

When Howard Dean was governor of Vermont, his administration was taken to task in a 1993 state audit that questioned the involvement of a top Dean aide in the awarding of a contract to a health maintenance organization. The aide, the audit noted, once represented the H.M.O. as a lobbyist.

The contract was canceled after the audit was made public.

Four years later, a second audit stumbled across a highly critical review of the same H.M.O., then the state’s largest. The review had never been made public, as required under state law.

The 1993 audit, by Edward S. Flanagan, pointed out that a $900,000 contract to administer health claims for the state’s 17,000 workers had been awarded to Community Health Plan at a time when Dr. Dean’s secretary of administration, the top official in the cabinet, was David Wilson, a lawyer and lobbyist who had counted the H.M.O. among his top clients.

Also, the audit concluded, Mr. Wilson played a substantive role in the awarding of the contract, despite having vowed to recuse himself from any state business involving former clients.

Let’s be clear here — it appears Dean did nothing wrong. If anybody did anything illegal or unethical, it seems it would have been Wilson.

But, as they say, the coverup is always worse than the crime.

Relate this story back to Dean’s ten-year lock on his gubernatorial records and his refusal to open them early. . . well, you have a new story which could haunt him for days. Or even weeks. Days and weeks before the January 15 Iowa Caucus, and the January 27 New Hampshire Primary.

Dean’s best hope is, maybe no one will care. And when I say “no one,” I mean, “no one in the press.” In that case, tomorrow he’ll make the usual political noises denying any wrongdoing, and the whole thing blows over in a day or two.

But if by Thursday or Friday the story is picking up steam, then Dean might have to release his sealed records.

Possible upside: There’s nothing there, and the by the weekend everyone has moved on to something else. Such as, oh, reports that Liv Tyler spent the weekend getting drunk on Citron martinis at some unknown Colorado Springs suburban home.

Possible downside: Years and years of juicy Dean faux pas which everyone is still talking about on Monday morning.

Best bet: The whole thing blows over by Thursday.