10/14/97 - 08:39 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Justice opposes immunity for witnesses

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has told a House committee it strongly opposes giving convicted Democratic fund-raisers Nora and Gene Lum immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony at congressional hearings.

Such a grant of immunity "would cause serious and irreparable harm to the ongoing criminal investigation" of the Lums' financial dealings by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service, the department said in a letter to Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

The couple has already pleaded guilty to laundering $50,000 in illegal donations to congressional campaigns in 1994.

Burton announced last week that he would seek immunity grants for the Lums in exchange for their testimony about what he described as a scheme to funnel $50,000 in foreign money to Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

In exchange for immunity, the Lums are prepared to testify that the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign wrote a letter endorsing the political candidacy of an unnamed Asian politician in exchange for a $50,000 donation to a California political organization the Lums set up to raise money among Asian Americans.

But the Justice Department's position could make it difficult for Burton to muster the necessary two-thirds majority of his committee to grant immunity. Six Democrats would to join the panel's 24 Republicans to vote to approve immunity.

Partisan differences have created a rift on the committee. Democrats, however, did join Republicans in voting to confer immunity on the sister of fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie and two others to enable them to testify they made donations on behalf of other people.

The Justice Department didn't oppose immunity for those three witnesses, who testified at hearings last week. The Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising abuses ignored the Justice Department's opposition in voting to confer immunity on four Buddhist nuns at a temple that was the site of a fund-raiser attended by Vice President Al Gore.

Will Dwyer II, a spokesman for Burton's committee, declined to comment on the Justice Department's Oct. 9 letter.

The Lums, California business people who operate a natural-gas pipeline company in Oklahoma, were each sentenced last month to 10 months confinement and fined $30,000 apiece for funneling $50,000 in illegal contributions through "straw donors" to two congressional campaigns.

The investigation of the Lums stemmed from an independent counsel's probe of their dealings with the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and his son, Michael.

When Brown died in a plane crash last year, the investigation was turned over to the Justice Department, which is continuing to investigate Nolanda Hill, a former business partner of Brown.

The couple gave Michael Brown thousands of dollars in shareholder fees and other corporate perks. The company's former president said in a lawsuit the payments were made as part of an attempt to gain influence with Ron Brown at the Commerce Department, where the Lums' daughter, Trisha, worked.

In their guilty pleas, the Lums admitted laundering $5,000 of the campaign donations through Michael Brown, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor election law violation. Michael Brown admitted giving $4,000 to three friends to donate to the re-election campaign of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Michael Brown is awaiting sentencing.

The Lums are the subject of a tax investigation involving transfers of cash from their business, Dynamic Energy Resources Inc. to personal accounts, from which they made campaign contributions, according to court papers filed in their campaign fund-raising case.

Even though the Justice Department is barred by the plea agreement from prosecuting the Lums on additional campaign-finance violations, the department is allowed to "continue to investigate the Lums' financial dealings," Assistant Attorney General Andrew Fois wrote Burton.

"The Lums' plea agreement was carefully negotiated and drafted to protect the continuing criminal investigation," Fois wrote. "As a result, the agreement stated that the Lums would continue to have their Fifth Amendment privileges, and they are not compelled to testify or provide information.

"In fact, rather than immunizing the Lums' statements, the plea agreement specifically stated that the Department of Justice could use their statements to gather leads in the continuing investigation," Fois wrote.

By The Associated Press

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