Ending what he called the worst two years of his life, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was cleared Saturday of any wrongdoing in the Bank of Commerce and Credit International scandal.

The Senate Ethics Committee ended a 15-month probe - which Hatch requested in August 1992 to clear his name against attacks in the news media - by unanimously issuing a one-paragraph exoneration:"The committee finds on the basis of available evidence that there is no credible evidence which provides reason to believe that Sen. Hatch engaged in any conduct which would constitute a violation of any law of the United States or of any rule of the Senate, nor any reason to believe that the senator engaged in any improper conduct."

Hatch figures that paragraph cost him a quarter-million dollars or so in defense-attorney fees. As of Sept. 30, he had raised $163,825 through donations to his defense fund and had spent $55,076.

"But these things usually cost $250,000 to $500,000. I still have to go out and raise a lot more money," he said. "That's why people do these things. It's a dirty gutter game to get you discouraged and quit, but I wouldn't quit."

Hatch praised the ethics committee's work - and acknowledged that waiting for its decision and enduring recurring attacks in the press over his BCCI ties were difficult.

"I want to thank those who stuck by me, especially my wife, Elaine. Without question, these have been the worst two years of our lives" - made worse by the death of his father at the height of the BCCI controversy.

He added, "Regrettably, those in Washington who engage in highly partisan politics do not always respect the truth.

"But I would never let these kinds of gutter tactics deter me from doing my honest best to represent Utah. Therefore, I welcome this finding today as conclusive evidence of my innocence and proper conduct."

Hatch blamed most of his problems "on some in the media who distorted the truth." Many national media - from NBC News to the New York Post to the Congress-watching newspaper Roll Call - for months claimed new revelations they said suggested improper ties by Hatch to BCCI officials.

They also said Hatch was under investigation by a New York grand jury and the Justice Department, but Hatch two years ago had the Justice Department issue the unusual statement that it was not investigating him.

Hatch's problems came because of cordial relations he had with officials of BCCI, a Luxembourg-based bank that operated in 70 nations. It was closed in 1991 amid allegations that it helped launder money from international drug trade and terrorism.

In 1990 Hatch gave a speech on the Senate floor defending BCCI and a settlement it had reached with the Justice Department. He later acknowledged that most of it had been written by BCCI lawyers Robert Altman and Clark Clifford, a former defense secretary.

Altman and Clifford were later charged with taking $40 million in bribes to help BCCI secretly and illegally take over First American Bank in Washington. Altman was recently acquitted on those charges.

After the speech, BCCI Chief Executive Officer Swaleh Naqvi - who was later indicted by the Justice Department - contacted Hatch to thank him. Hatch then asked Naqvi to consider making a loan to one of his business partners, Monzer Hourani.

Hourani is a heavy campaign contributor to Hatch, and manages a $10,000 rental townhouse that Hatch bought in Houston. However, Hourani never received the loan, and Hatch said it had been intended for ventures in which he personally was not involved.

Hatch said he felt Hourani had faced discrimination because he was an Arab, and felt he would have a better chance with BCCI - which had Arab leaders.

Hatch also popped up in BCCI rumors because he met several times with the late Mohammed Hammoud, a major BCCI shareholder who is alleged to have been a front man for BCCI in the Middle East.

Hatch has said he met Hammoud through Utahn Earl Milne, who introduced him as a wealthy businessman who might be interested in investing in Utah.

"During my several meetings with Hammoud, we discussed Utah, the Middle East, Lebanon's leadership and the hostage crisis" - and Hammoud even introduced him to the man who became speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Hatch said in earlier statements.

"In the several meetings I had with Hammoud, at no time did we discuss BCCI, nor did I know of his relationship with BCCI," Hatch said earlier.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, welcomed Hatch's exoneration. "I have always maintained my faith in Senator Hatch's integrity," Bennett said in a statement. "That the cloud of suspicion has been lifted from him . . . is cause for celebration."