House, Senate finance probes join forces

WASHINGTON - There were two questions former Democratic Party finance director Richard Sullivan did not want to be asked when he made his second appearance before the Senate committee investigating political fund-raising.

Sullivan lucked out. Neither question was raised when he was called before the committee last week to testify about allegations of an illegal cash swap between the Teamsters and the Democrats.

He will not be that lucky when he appears before the House committee studying the same issues.

After months of independent operations, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee are coordinating their work. Senate hearings reopen today, and the House committee won't schedule its next round until after sifting through what the Senate turns up.

So it will be a while before Sullivan is asked about his role in helping the White House compile a computer database of potential donors.

Investigators suspect Democratic Party officers used the White House computer system to organize lists of donors, then gave the lists to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for fund-raising, which could be considered illegal fund-raising on federal property. The White House and the DNC have said there was nothing illegal about the database.

Sullivan also will be asked about his role in an alleged scheme to send $1 million in contributions from the Teamsters to state Democratic groups in exchange for the Democrats arranging a $100,000 gift from a contributor to the re-election campaign of Teamsters President Ron Carey.

Asked by the Senate panel if he had tried to "raise" a Teamsters donation, he said no. If he were asked if he tried to "facilitate" a donation, he would give a different answer - and that's what House questioners will ask. It would be illegal to use Teamsters money to generate a contribution to Carey's campaign.

Sullivan told the Senate committee he had no direct role in the scheme, to which three people have pleaded guilty. But an unrelated dispute on the panel brought an abrupt end to his appearance.

Call it a congressional tag team or Monday morning quarterbacking. Whatever the name, the House panel finds itself in a position to ask follow-up questions that were missed by the Senate committee because of time constraints or political squabbling.

"We're trying to coordinate our efforts with the Senate. We're not going to redo what the Senate has done," says Richard Bennett, chief counsel for the House panel.

The controversy over Democratic fund-raising began a year ago as the 1996 presidential race was in its final weeks. Since then, information about questionable fund-raising has trickled to the public from news stories, congressional hearings and the release of White House documents.

But there was no coordinated effort to follow up on the disclosures. Senate committee hearings started in July and have jumped from topic to topic. The House committee had internal problems, including the departure of its chief investigator in June. There was little communication. Both committees subpoenaed the same documents and people.

The new arrangement between the House and Senate committees means that when Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., finishes his work, as required, by Dec. 31, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., will continue the investigation. His committee has no deadline.

"There will be a passing of the baton," says Richard Bennett, the House committee's chief counsel.

"We will examine this entire matter for as long as it takes to unearth the full story," Burton says.

Already top investigators from both committee are holding regular weekly meetings.

When the Senate hearings reopen today, they will focus on videotapes of fund-raising events featuring President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

The questions will center on why the tapes were not turned over when they were subpoenaed seven months ago, whether the tapes show any prohibited fund-raising on federal property and whether the tapes were tampered with before their release.

Kent Cooper, head of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan watchdog group, praised the concept of a coordinated investigative effort. But he is skeptical that Burton, who is seen as more partisan and anti-Democratic than Thompson, can pull it off.

"That would take a tremendous change of stance and attitude," Cooper says.

He says the committee should select examples of fund-raising abuses by both parties, "state what the law is and hammer home the point."

By Tom Squitieri, USA TODAY