07/18/97 - 12:49 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Huang used office across street

WASHINGTON - Sometimes two or three times a week, John Huang crossed the street from his Commerce Department office to make calls and pick up faxes at an investment firm with ties to his former Indonesian employer, senators were told Thursday.

The testimony by a former secretary at the Washington office of Stephens Inc. brought a torrent of questions from senators about why Huang made frequent use of a spare office at the investment firm. But explanations were elusive.

Republicans trying to determine whether the former government official and Democratic Party fund-raiser was a spy tried to put a sinister cast on Huang's visits. Democrats said the evidence proved nothing.

"These visits I find very curious, but I can't conclude much more," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

Huang's activities as a Commerce Department deputy assistant secretary and later as a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee are a major focus of the fund-raising hearings by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Among the questions is whether he passed sensitive economic data to his former employer, the Lippo Group, an Indonesian-based conglomerate with extensive dealings in China. Huang denies that he did so.

Paula V. Greene, a soft-spoken former secretary for Stephens Inc., described Huang's use of a back room office to make calls but offered no explanation for the purpose of his frequent visits.

Huang had unrestricted use of the telephone, copier and fax machine in the spare office when he stopped by "sometimes two, three times a week, perhaps not every week," she said. But Ms. Greene said she did not know whom he called or whether Huang transmitted any faxes.

Ms. Greene said she was instructed by her boss Vernon Weaver to speak directly to Huang at the Commerce Department if there was a fax or an express-mail package for him to pick up.

But "if he was not there, I was just to leave a message to just call me," Ms. Greene said.

A registered lobbyist, Weaver was unable to recall details of Huang's visits to the Stephens Inc. office when he was questioned under oath by Senate investigators for a deposition, said a committee source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Compounding the mystery of Huang, who is refusing to testify without a limited grant of immunity, was the presentation of evidence of more than 400 telephone calls that he made to Lippo and some of its business representatives during the 18 months he was at Commerce.

A presentation of charts by a Senate GOP staff member provoked angry accusations by Democrats that they were designed to portray Huang unfairly and malign the Lippo officials he called.

Lieberman facetiously suggested that crossing the street to make calls at Stephens "may make Mr. Huang one of the few people in America who does not use the office phone and fax for personal purposes."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, retorted there was plentiful evidence that Huang made numerous personal calls on his government telephone.

"I am beginning to wonder whether Mr. Huang had time to do his Commerce Department business," she said.

The committee put off until Tuesday a vote on whether to grant partial immunity to four Buddhist nuns to testify about a fund-raiser attended by Vice President Al Gore at a temple last year.

Former GOP Chairman Haley Barbour is expected to testify next week when hearings will focus on foreign donations to the Republican Party and a GOP think tank. Hearings are scheduled to resume Wednesday.

Information about Huang's calls to Lippo was drawn from telephone records subpoenaed from Huang and others as well as interviews with people with whom he spoke, including Arkansas businessman C. Joseph Giroir who deals with Lippo, testified John Cobb, a Senate staff member who compiled the information.

His charts showed Huang called or sent faxes to Lippo's offices in Indonesia at least 29 times. He also made 237 calls to Lippo, USA, an operation Huang headed before joining the Commerce Department in 1994.

"There is nothing here in this number to lead us to reach a conclusion about any violation of law, but the number is troubling to me," Lieberman said.

Cobb said there was also circumstantial evidence that Huang raised more than $100,000 for the Democratic Party while at Commerce. Some of that money was returned by the DNC, part of the $1.6 million raised by Huang that the Democrats returned because it came from questionable sources.

Democrats scoffed at Cobb's presentation, questioning why someone who prepared charts was called as a witness.

Recalling his days making charts as a Senate staff member, Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., told Cobb: "I am not interested in talking to a chart maker."

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