07/10/97 - 12:54 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Sullivan nervous on witness stand

WASHINGTON - A boyish-looking former political fund-raiser who's studying for his bar exam was on the other side of the witness stand Wednesday answering questions about the campaign finance scandal.

Under hot television lights at the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Richard Sullivan often spoke haltingly, taking long pauses before answering.

The former Democratic National Committee finance director said he knew nothing about campaign wrongdoing that occurred on his watch:

"I was never confronted at the time with any evidence or suggestion of willful misconduct, foreign government influence (or) sale of office."

Sullivan kept his hands folded. Photographers knelt in front of him, clicking their cameras every time he moved.

And for more than four hours he endured tough questions from 16 members of the panel probing just how former Democratic fund-raiser John Huang got his job at the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Like the former prosecutor he is, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., homed in on a Feb. 6, 1996 coffee at the White House coffee where a Chinese arms dealer met President Clinton.

How could it be, he asked, that an arms manufacturer came to attend?

Sullivan said he believed the DNC had done a computer database search on Wang Jun, a Chinese citizen, and had not turned up any information that suggested he should not attend.

"The public record is clear that Wang Jun has ties at a very high level to Chinese officials and that he's the head of a major arms dealer," Specter shot back.

He said any database search would have picked up negative information on Wang. Sullivan, shifting in his seat and his voice breaking slightly, replied, "It's obviously a mistake."

Still, the senators had more questions for Sullivan.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a freshman, tried to press him on why he was worried about hiring John Huang and why he needed a special training session on fund-raising.

There were special reasons, Sullivan replied reluctantly.

What were those reasons?

The Maine Republican didn't get a chance to ask. Her time ran out.

The audience groaned. Reporters laughed. "Ask the next question," several muttered.

Then, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., picked up Collins' line of questions.

"To my knowledge, he didn't have any experience working professionally on a full-time basis raising money for a political campaign," Sullivan said.

In his first appearance, Sullivan covered a lot of ground. He said that Vice President Gore "absolutely" did not know the luncheon he attended last year at a California Buddhist temple was a fund-raising event.

He told the committee that even he didn't know money was raised from monks, nuns and Asian businessmen "until I read it in the newspaper."

Republicans on the committee did not question Sullivan about the temple event, but they aren't likely to let the topic drop. The Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., has become a prime target of the GOP-led probe into Democratic fund-raising in last year's presidential election.

Evidence compiled by congressional investigators indicates that at least $83,000 of $140,000 raised from the luncheon may have come through "straw donors," poor monks and nuns who were told to contribute using funds provided by others.

Sullivan is the first of dozens of witnesses the committee expects to call in coming weeks. He'll be at the witness table again today.

Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said he was amazed that Sullivan was first.

"Don't you find it extraordinary that you have no knowledge of any activities of foreign governments' influence on this campaign . . . and you are the lead witness?"

"Yes," Sullivan replied. The audience laughed.

"So do I," Torricelli replied.

By Judi Hasson and Judy Keen, USA TODAY