07/09/97 - 04:55 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Ex-DNC official: Huang hired after White House prompting

WASHINGTON - The Democratic Party's former finance director testified Wednesday that two calls from President Clinton's deputy chief of staff prompted the party to hire controversial fund-raiser John Huang. The president acknowledged he, too, may have put in a word for Huang.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee announced that Attorney General Janet Reno has told him she opposes granting immunity to Huang, who has offered to testify if granted immunity from prosecution for some areas of his testimony.

Both Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, and its ranking Democrat, John Glenn, said they would negotiate with Huang's attorney to seek an agreement. "We've got to go forward with it and go forward with it in a public manner," Thompson said.

But Thompson and other senators expressed reluctance to offer immunity for fear of jeopardizing the Justice Department's criminal investigation into fund-raising abuses.

If Huang gets immunity,"by the time his testimony is done, I don't think there is much left for the Justice Department to pursue," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. "Put me down as skeptical."

Richard Sullivan, the opening witness at the committee hearings, testified he had reservations about Huang's lack of professional fund-raising experience before going to work as the Democrats' chief fund-raiser in the Asian-American community.

"He did not have any experience on a fulltime basis," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said he insisted that Huang receive extensive training about the legalities of fund raising before he start as a Democratic vice-finance chairman and told Huang to "be careful on that front." He said he never had concerns that Huang would raise illegal foreign money.

But under questioning from the committee's Republican counsel, Michael Madigan, Sullivan said he was concerned that the party's top lawyer instruct Huang about the law forbidding foreign donations and was assured he got such instruction. "I was concerned that John knew the rule," he said.

More than half of the $3 million in donations the Democratic National Committee has returned from the 1996 election was raised by Huang. The money has been returned because of concerns the donations came from illegal foreign or improper sources.

Sullivan said he interviewed Huang for a fund-raising job after then-DNC finance chairman Marvin Rosen told him of two calls he had received in late 1995 from White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes.

"My sense of it at the time was that Harold had called Marvin twice over a period of couple of weeks, and that is when Marvin acted on it," Sullivan said. His questioning by Thompson was designed to establish that the White House pressed for Huang to get a job at the Democratic Party.

Sullivan testified that after the 1996 election he was told by Rosen that Clinton himself wanted Huang at the DNC. "He mentioned that at some point, in passing, that the president had asked him if he had heard that John was interested in coming to the DNC," he said.

In Madrid, Clinton offered a vague answer about Huang.

"I believe that John Huang at some point when I saw him in 1995 expressed an interest in going to work to help raise money for the Democratic Party and I think I may have said to someone that he wanted to go to work at the DNC," Clinton said.

"I don't remember who I said that to. I wish I could tell you more. Most people don't volunteer to help you raise money in this world," he said.

Sullivan testified that the calls from Ickes came after several others had already made a pitch to the DNC to hire Huang, including Arkansas lawyer Joseph Giroir and Mark Middleton, a White House aide who went into business with Giroir.

The White House has previously acknowledged that following a meeting with Huang at the White House in fall 1995, presidential aides supported Huang's decision to leave a top Commerce Department job to raise money for the 1996 election.

Sullivan, a boyish-looking political operative about to take the lawyers' bar exam, appeared tense as he fielded questions from senators. He kept his hands folded, a bank of photographers in front of him.

He was praised by Thompson for being "straightforward and cooperative."

Huang has become a central figure in the fund-raising controversy. The head of U.S. operations for the Indonesian-based Lippo Group financial empire, Huang was appointed by Clinton in 1994 to a be a deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department where he had access to intelligence information.

A Republican congressman has accused Huang of leaking classified information to his former employer - a charge that Huang has denied.

In 1996, Huang left the department to become the Democratic Party's chief funds solicitor in the Asian-American community, a job that ultimately landed him and the party in controversy.

Despite disclosures after Clinton's reelection of the Democratic Party's fund-raising problems, Sullivan told the senators he was never confronted with any evidence of the party's fund-raising irregularities during the crush of last year's election.

"None of the more sensational issues ever came to my attention," Sullivan said.

Glenn told Sullivan it was "rather amazing" that the Democrats had to return only 172 questionable contributions of more than 2.7 million donations made to the party.

But Sullivan did tell of misgivings he had about another Asian-American donor to the Democratic Party, Johnny Chung, who "insinuated" that he would make a sizable contribution if he were and several Chinese businessmen were allowed to attend one of Clinton's Saturday morning radio addresses.

Sullivan said he was worried that the money from Chung might be from the Chinese businessman and refused to help. Nonetheless, the White House previously acknowledged that Chung and the businessman attended the radio address - even after national security staff cautioned that Chung impressed them as being a "hustler."

Chung also delivered a $50,000 check inside the White House to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.