Campaign finance witnesses get immunity
WASHINGTON - In a move Republicans hoped would restart their investigation, a House panel granted immunity to four witnesses Tuesday to compel testimony about foreign campaign contributions to Democrats.
The vote followed months of partisan squabbling and came only after the Reform and Oversight Committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, agreed to Democrats' demands that rules regarding witnesses and documents be modified.
"We've had our differences on this committee - there is no doubt about that," said Burton, R-Ind. "But it's time to put that behind us. The people have a right to know ... if the Chinese government tried to influence our elections."
While Burton and other Republicans saw the vote as a major boost to the probe, Democrats suggested that it was too late to save their investigation and noted that a separate House panel was already looking into the charges regarding China.
"It's no secret that I believe that this investigation has not been a useful one," said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the panel's ranking Democrat. Waxman said the probe had been in "some disarray."
Immunity grants require a two-thirds vote. On two previous occasions, Democrats angered by what they said was Burton's overly partisan approach, refused to provide Burton with a single vote.
"Although I will support immunity," Waxman said, "I don't believe these rules changes change my misgivings about this investigation."
On Tuesday, the grants of immunity from prosecution passed 40-0 after Burton agreed to change the way committee investigators conduct depositions and allow the Democrats' counsel equal opportunity to quiz witnesses, and to allow Democrats a voice in what documents will be made public.
Burton handled a request that the committee be allowed to vote on subpoenas by saying he would abide by the judgment of a working group of five committee members.
"After a great deal of thought, we on our side have said we are willing to make some changes," Burton said.
The witnesses are believed to have important information about efforts to funnel money from China into Democratic campaign coffers in 1996.
Two, Iran Wu and Nancy Lee, were employees of fund-raiser Johnny Chung. Another, Larry Wong, is a longtime associate of a fund-raising couple who have pleaded guilty to fund-raising abuses.
The Justice Department had no objection to Wu, Lee and Wong testifying. The department dropped an objection to testimony from the fourth witness, Kent La, only after committee members promised to protect the confidentiality of anything he told them.
La was a close business associate of Ted Sioeng, a key figure in a federal probe of campaign fund-raising abuses.
Last year, committee members met behind closed doors with Chung after promising Justice they would keep secret anything he told them.
Waxman indicated he was frustrated by those ground rules after reading reports that Chung had told prosecutors Democrats knowingly solicited illegal funds. He said that didn't jibe with what Chung told the committee.
"I must say, without going into any details," Waxman said, "that it's different, far different, from what's been reported in the press."
By The Associated Press
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