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05/13/98- Updated 02:56 PM ET

Democrats fail to oust Rep. Burton

WASHINGTON - Democratic members of the House committee investigating the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign fund-raising practices Wednesday blocked majority Republicans from immunizing new witnesses after the Democrats failed to oust the panel's chairman.

The committee voted 24-to-19 along party lines to grant immunity to four potential witnesses in exchange for testimony, short of the two-thirds needed under the committee's rules to do so. The setback for Republicans set up the likelihood the GOP leadership would seek to have the immunity issue settled in a different committee.

Burton told reporters after the vote that the Committee on House Administration, headed by Rep. William Thomas, R-Calif., would conduct the inquiry of the four witnesses testify under a grant of immunity.

"I have no choice," Burton said, adding that immunity might be required for additional witnesses - and they, too, would have to be questioned by Thomas' panel. However, witnesses willing to cooperate would still appear before his panel, Burton said, with two or three additional hearings expected by the end of July.

This fall, Burton said, he expects to write an interim report but would not say whether it would be finished before the November congressional elections.

Burton has been under siege by House Democrats for his handling of the fund-raising investigation, the House's counterpart to the probe led in the Senate by Sen. Fred Thompson, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

Wednesday, Burton used his powers as chairman to block the committee from voting on a motion by the ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman, to curb the Indiana Republican's unchallenged authority to issue subpoenas. Democrats have accused Burton of conducting a heavy-handed and biased investigation.

Withholding votes for immunity amounts to the only clout the Democrats have on the panel, which is investigating illegal foreign fund-raising in the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.

Waxman made his proposals a condition for his party's support of immunity, which needed a two-thirds vote on the 44-member panel. The immunity question will likely be transferred to another panel that has a two-thirds Republican majority.

"What we have is an investigation out of control and without credibility," Waxman said. "Voting for immunity Wednesday without adopting any changes in how the committee operates would just worsen the problem."

Burton said the witnesses are important, especially Kent La - a U.S. distributor for a cigarette company owned by the Chinese government.

"If this company was being used as a vehicle for the Chinese government to funnel money into the United States, Kent La is probably the person who would know," Burton said. "The only way to find out is to give Kent La immunity and hear his testimony."

Democrats have said that if they couldn't oust Burton in committee, they would try a similar maneuver before the full House. That move also is doomed to failure.

Maneuvering aside, the tactics served as vehicles for Democrats to accuse Burton once more of conducting a partisan witch hunt; and for Republicans to argue that crimes were committed in efforts to bring foreign money into the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.

Burton, defending himself in a floor speech Tuesday, demanded that Democrats stop blocking immunity for the four witnesses. All four may possess key knowledge of illegal foreign contributions, Burton said.

"This investigation has been stonewalled" by the White House, the Democratic National Committee and some 90 individuals who have fled the country or asserted their Fifth Amendment rights against testifying, Burton charged.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department said in a letter that Burton agreed to severe restrictions for interviewing La about foreign campaign contributions.

La is an associate of foreign businessman Ted Sioeng, who, Burton said, is suspected of supplying Chinese government money to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. Sieong has fled the country.

The key restriction is that La cannot testify in public "until and unless the Department of Justice" determines its own campaign fund-raising investigation would not be compromised.

The letter, obtained by The Associated Press, went from Justice Department official Mark M. Richard to Burton on April 22. It placed in writing the restrictions negotiated between the department and the committee staff.

Burton said Tuesday that La "is the U.S. distributor of Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. Ted Sioeng has a major stake in these cigarettes. This company is owned by the Communist Chinese government. It is a convenient way to get money into this country."

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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