10/01/97 - 11:41 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Tribal officials plead Fifth before panel

WASHINGTON - Officials of an Oklahoma Indian tribe that donated $107,000 to the Democratic Party to help recover disputed land are refusing to answer questions under oath by Senate investigators.

Leaders of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe told the Senate they would invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to be questioned unless given immunity from prosecution, Senate aides and the Indians' lawyer said. The lawyer also took the Fifth.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee sought to question tribal officials about the donations given in the hope of winning President Clinton's support for the return of disputed Indian land, aides said.

A Democratic fund raiser had promised the tribe return of the land in exchange for a donation, according to testimony at July committee hearings on campaign fund raising.

Rick Grellner, an Oklahoma attorney who represented the tribe in the land dispute, said he and three tribal officials invoked the Fifth Amendment because their Washington lawyer "advised us to."

The attorney advised that the officials might prosecuted on bribery charges for making the donation as part of an effort to influence an official action, return of the disputed land, Grellner said.

Barry Coburn, the Washington attorney, said he advised his clients to seek immunity "out of an abundance of caution. I strenuously believe they have done nothing wrong or illegal."

The tribe made an $87,000 donation in June 1996 after its chairman, Charles Surveyor, saw President Clinton at a White House lunch and made a pitch for return of the tribal land, investigators say.

The tribe donated another $20,000 in connection with an August, 1996, birthday gala for the president. The Interior Department's inspector general is investigating whether federal funds were used for the donation, but Senate investigators say the contribution came from the impoverished tribe's welfare fund.

The Justice Department's campaign fund-raising task force is also reviewing the donation.

Senate investigators also sought to question tribal officials about discussions they had with a private detective about digging up unfavorable information on a committee member, Sen. Don Nickles. The Oklahoma Republican opposes transferring land back to the tribe.

Terry F. Lenzner, head of a Washington-based investigation firm, told the committee he was approached by tribal officials to determine if Nickles received favors or gratuities from Oklahoma's powerful gas and oil industry for opposing the land transfer.

The disputed land is the site of an ancient tribal burial ground. It was taken from the Indians more than 100 years ago to build an Army fort and is rich in reserves of oil and natural gas.

Lenzner said tribal officials told him a Democratic fund raiser promised "favorable action" by the Clinton administration on the land dispute in return for the donation.

The discussion was set up by Cody Shearer, a friend of Clinton and brother-in-law of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Lenzner said. At the hearing, Republicans argued that the meeting was brokered by Democrats to trigger a probe of Nickles - a suggestion denied by the White House and the DNC.

The tribe later decided not to retain Lenzner's firm, so the investigation was never carried out.

The DNC, which returned the contribution earlier this year, has denied that its fund raisers promised any action by the Clinton administration on the land transfer.

Besides Grellner and Surveyor, those refusing to testify without immunity grants are Tyler Todd, the tribe's governmental affairs director, and secretary Archie Hoffman.

By The Associated Press

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