Chung testifies off the record

WASHINGTON - Saying he would refuse to talk under oath, Democratic Party donor Johnny Chung answered questions "off the record" for hours Friday in the House fund-raising investigation, a Democratic congressman said.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., head of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said that Chung first asserted his Fifth Amendment rights to avoid sworn testimony. But he then spent nearly three hours providing information informally, which will be used to pursue leads in the probe, Burton said.

He added that members of both parties agreed they would not divulge the contents of the discussions and declared he would fire any staff member who leaked the information.

"The information, we think, will be helpful. We will pursue those leads," Burton told reporters.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and other Democrats portray Chung as a savvy businessman who insinuated himself with politicians of both parties.

"I must say nothing I've seen in the last couple of hours has changed my views" about Chung, said Waxman, ranking Democrat in the House committee probe.

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is closer to facing an independent counsel probe for a decision that aided Democratic donors.

Attorney General Janet Reno opened a 90-day preliminary inquiry Thursday into allegations that Babbitt's Interior Department killed a proposed Indian gambling casino in Wisconsin because of the promise of political contributions by opponents.

Tribes that opposed the casino eventually gave the Democratic Party $286,000 - one of many fund-raising matters being looked into by the Justice Department and congressional committees.

The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee summoned Chung to a closed session today, hoping he would cooperate rather than assert his Fifth Amendment privilege and refuse to answer questions.

Chung brought six Chinese businessmen to the White House on March 9, 1995, the day he handed a $50,000 contribution to Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff. Two days later, with help from the Democratic National Committee, the visitors shook hands with President Clinton and attended his weekly radio address.

Republicans have questioned whether Chung was illegally using overseas money for his Democratic contributions - which totaled $366,000 and were returned to donors by party officials who suspected the origin of the funds.

On Thursday, Nancy Hernreich, Clinton's scheduler, testified before the House panel that the president expressed concern to her that Chung brought the businessmen to the radio address.

"We shouldn't have brought them in here," Hernreich quoted Clinton as saying, but added that the president never explained his remark further.

Nearly a month later, a National Security Council staffer, Melanie B. Darby, sent NSC officials a memo describing the businessmen as "various Chinese gurus and the POTUS (president of the United States) wasn't sure we'd want photos of him with these people circulating around."

Darby, called to testify today, said in the memo that Hernreich needed to know "urgently" whether to give Chung pictures of the businessmen with Clinton.

That same day, another NSC official, Robert Suettinger, responded to Darby that Chung was a "hustler" who should be "treated with a pinch of suspicion."

Hernreich said she did not remember whether the pictures were given to Chung.

Another issue involving Chung surfaced recently when three people who contributed to Clinton's re-election campaign told House investigators an employee of Chung asked them to make the contributions and later reimbursed them, according to a House source. It is illegal to give money in the name of another person.

Reacting to the decision on Babbitt, Interior Department spokesman Mike Gauldin said the agency "will continue to cooperate with the Department of Justice in this matter."

For the past 30 days, prosecutors have reviewed allegations that political pressure brought by Minnesota and Wisconsin Indian tribes opposing the casino improperly influenced the Interior Department's ruling. The casino was sought by three Wisconsin Chippewa tribes.

Babbitt testified at Senate campaign fund-raising hearings last month that politics played no role in the department's decision.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee asked Reno on Thursday to immediately appoint an independent counsel to investigate the role of Clinton and White House aides in the decision. They called Reno's move "a step in the right direction" but said it was "much too little, much too late."

By The Associated Press

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