10/09/97 - 02:00 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Thompson apologizes for linking Clinton, Teamsters

WASHINGTON - The Senate's chief campaign fund-raising investigator made an extraordinary apology Wednesday for trying to link President Clinton to an illegal scheme to funnel union funds to a Teamsters election.

"I left the wrong impression" by suggesting Clinton met privately with three campaign aides implicated in a scheme to send union money to the election campaign of Teamsters President Ron Carey, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., acknowledged.

"If you've got to eat any crow, or maybe even half a crow, it's better to do it warm than when it gets cold," Thompson said after the White House produced records showing the three attended a Democratic Party lunch in the Blue Room.

"I should have taken a little more time to explore some of these avenues before I left that implication," he said.

Thompson's apology came during questioning of former White House aide Harold Ickes, Clinton's point man for the 1996 campaign, who had been billed as the star witness.

Ickes was clearly spoiling for a fight when he entered the hearing room, telling reporters the proceedings were "little more than a taxpayer-financed game of 'gotcha' as payback for us winning the election."

"Let the games begin," Ickes said.

Ickes wrangled with Republican senators, frequently getting into shouting matches with several who peppered him with rapid-fire questions before he could finish his answers.

"Do I get the courtesy of answering?" he asked Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

"We are going to be very courteous," Cochran said.

Ickes also repeatedly sparred with Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., particularly when the lawmaker tried to blame the White House for the activities of Democratic fund-raiser John Huang, a focus of the campaign fund-raising probe.

"You said in your opening statement, ... 'We know the law and we abided by the law.' That is not the case," Nickles said. "Mr. Huang raised a lot of illegal money and he did it directly with the president."

"That's a cheap shot, senator," Ickes said. "You are trying to pin on me and the president of the United States what an employee of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) did and what he shouldn't have done."

"Innuendo is easy, senator," Ickes said.

"The fact you're unapologetic and defiant doesn't change the facts," Nickles said.

"I am not defiant. I am just tired of innuendo," Ickes said.

Thompson, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, was put quickly on the defensive when he asked Ickes about White House entry logs showing the three campaign aides were admitted for what he described as a June 17, 1996, meeting with Clinton.

Thompson noted that the appointment was during a time when federal prosecutors say the scheme to swap Democratic Party donations to Carey's campaign for Teamster money was being carried out.

One of the three, political consultant Martin Davis, has pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme. The other two identified in court papers are Clinton-Gore fund-raisers Terence McAuliffe and Laura Hartigan.

Democrats quickly fired back, noting that the "meeting" was in fact a DNC luncheon for major donors.

"Senator Thompson obviously went beyond the facts," said White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis. The records showed the three entered the White House during the same period when other guests arrived, Davis said.

McAuliffe, denying the Teamsters election was discussed, called Thompson's tactics "a continuation of the political witch hunt."

Thompson's concession came just two days after he accused the White House of trying to obstruct his committee's investigation by being slow to produce 44 videotapes of coffees Clinton hosted for Democratic donors.

His excuse for his comments was similar to one the White House gave for being slow to find the videotapes subpoenaed by the Senate committee last spring.

"A lot of people were working awfully late ... around here scrambling to meet a deadline," said Thompson, who had rejected the White House's explanation for its delay.

By The Associated Press

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