07/18/97 - 06:11 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Campaign finances hearings marked by bickering

WASHINGTON - The Senate panel investigating campaign finance abuse wrapped up a second week of hearings Thursday, but partisan bickering and political charges and counter-charges grew louder.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is supposed to be conducting a bipartisan probe into questionable political fund-raising during the 1996 election cycle - particularly into possible influence of illegal foreign funds on national campaigns. But Thursday's session dissolved into a trio of clashes:

The Hacienda Heights, Calif., fund-raiser at Hsi Lai temple, full of impoverished monks and nuns, raised $140,000 the Democratic National Committee eventually returned as a questionable donation, and it is an event Republicans on the Senate panel want explained.

The Justice Department - which also is investigating the temple event as part of a broad fund-raising probe - has refused to agree on grants of immunity for at least five key nuns, including one named Man Ho who committee staffers say knows how the event was arranged. The refusal on immunity implies Justice is considering possible criminal charges against the religious witnesses, and doesn't want its case jeopardized.

"She's scared to death," the majority counsel, Michael Madigan, said of Man Ho. "It is preposterous to think the Justice Department would consider prosecuting a Buddhist nun about this high (holds hand at hip level) and who's done nothing wrong."

The committee was supposed to discuss the immunity question openly Thursday, but Democrats insisted on a secret session at which nothing was resolved.

"We have detailed proffers on all these people," said Thompson, describing the outline of expected testimony. "In my mind, there's no question the Department of Justice has a conflict of interest here. It looks very, very bad. It's part of a larger picture that is very troubling to me."

Earlier, the committee heard about how DNC finance vice chairman Huang, while he was a deputy secretary at the Commerce Department, made phone calls, sent faxes and received packages in the Washington office of Stephens Inc., an Arkansas-based investment company with ties to the Lippo Group and its chairman, James Riady.

But because there was no system to trace who made faxes or phone calls, committee investigators have been unable to determine what was on the faxes and in the packages, and to whom Huang may have been talking on the phone.

Those are crucial questions about whether Huang was, as some Democratic senators suggested, merely making personal or political contacts at Stephens; or whether he was using the Stephens office to pass on information he may have learned in 37 top-secret intelligence briefings he received while at the Commerce Department.

The committee may never find out. Huang, who raised more than $3 million for the Democrats last year, has offered to testify under limited immunity. But Thompson and others are cool to that idea.

Republicans later flipped up large computer-enhanced charts showing Huang made at least 237 calls to Lippo executives while at Commerce; visited the Chinese embassy half a dozen times; and made at least 107 calls to Indonesia, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The charts purported to show Huang illegally raised almost $1 million from foreign nationals while at Commerce.

The charts drew howls of protest from Democrats, including Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who called them part of "a constant effort to overstate the case, misrepresent the facts, and deal with levels of influence where there is no substance - which is undermining the credibility of a serious inquiry."

Thompson shot back that the Democratic senators were "clearly showing a great deal of defensiveness with regard to these charts."

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