10/06/97 - 12:42 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Ickes takes center stage at hearings

WASHINGTON - The words Harold Ickes collected on thousands of papers have given investigators tantalizing details about President Clinton's role in campaign fund-raising during 1995 and 1996.

Now the words from Ickes' mouth are what matter most.

Tuesday, Ickes is due before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. It is the first time someone intimately involved with almost every aspect of the Clinton/Al Gore fund-raising strategy will testify before the panel that's investigating allegations of fund-raising abuses.

Committee members have been told by their staff to expect a combative, feisty performance from the former deputy chief of staff at the White House.

Republicans on the panel hope they can rile Ickes, who's known to have a temper, and get him to say something damaging about Clinton and the Democrats.

Senators will likely zero in on one key point: Ickes has told investigators working for the committee that the president did make fund-raising calls on behalf of the Democratic Party. Clinton has said he can't recall making such calls, but might have. If any calls were made from the White House, they might have broken a 114-year-old law that generally prohibits fund-raising on federal property. For his part, Ickes (ICK-eez) says not to expect much in the way of news, but be ready for good theater.

"Since in my view, neither the president nor the vice president did anything wrong whatsoever there's nothing I'm going to say that's going to hurt them in any way," Ickes said during an interview last week.

Ickes will find himself under fire from many committee members. One reason is earlier testimony from former Democratic National Committee (DNC) officials Don Fowler and Richard Sullivan. They pointed to Ickes as the man who pulled the fund-raising strings at the White House.

It will be their words against Ickes' testimony. But it also will be Ickes' testimony against the thousands of pages of memos, notes, documents and faxes he wrote and collected during his White House days. Ickes, who wanted to succeed Leon Panetta as White House chief of staff following the '96 election, was turned down by Clinton. He left the administration after Inauguration Day with 50 boxes of documents. Ickes is an obsessive note-taker, in part to help him stay awake in meetings: he has suffered from narcolepsy in the past.

Ickes wrote memos to Clinton urging him to telephone donors from the White House, then provided lists of people to be called (although he's told investigators Clinton rarely made such calls). Ickes participated in the weekly White House strategy sessions in which Clinton's re-election message was honed. He also participated in the weekly DNC budget meetings that decided how money would be raised and spent.

At Clinton's request, Ickes also paved the way for moving John Huang from his midlevel position at the Commerce Department to a top fund-raising slot at the DNC. Huang went on to become the person many believe prodded Asian-Americans into making thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the Democrats but that eventually were returned after being deemed improper.

Ickes was interviewed by Senate investigators in June and again in September. According to copies of those depositions, which were obtained by USA TODAY, Ickes made it clear that Clinton was the ultimate boss in deciding how the 1996 campaign would be run.

"If there were disagreements, the president of the United States wanted something, you know what? The president of the United States got his way. And you know what? That's the way it should be," Ickes told investigators.

Last week, Ickes said he has been monitoring the Senate hearings, which began in July. He called them "very partisan hearings that give a very selective picture. . . . I'm certainly not looking forward to" testifying.

By Tom Squitieri and Judy Keen, USA TODAY