07/19/97 - 05:37 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Dodd tap dances as campaign abuse hearings unfold

WASHINGTON - For Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., ignorance may not be bliss. But it certainly appears safe.

Dodd, as co-chair of the Democratic Party in 1995-96, was, next to President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, perhaps the most visible Democrat during the campaign.

But, unlike Clinton, Gore and a host of party officials, Dodd has not been implicated in the fund-raising abuses being investigated by the special Senate committee headed by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. The committee particularly is looking into money raised from foreign sources.

Fund-raising and day-to-day management of the party "just wasn't part of my job description," Dodd said in a telephone interview. That was left to co-chairman Don Fowler.

No one at the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has talked to Dodd, the senator said, but one staff member said Dodd could expect a call during later phases of the probe, expected to stretch into the fall.

"We will look at Senator Dodd, but not on the immediate horizon. We'll look at him, but probably not until September. He will get his day, eventually, whether he anticipates it or not," said Mark Tipps, deputy chief counsel for the Republicans.

Joseph Lieberman, emerging as the committee Democrat who appears most receptive to listening to the GOP point of view, has not seen a reason to question his fellow Connecticut senator.

"So far I haven't seen any reason to call Senator Dodd," Lieberman said. "... But he has said if called, he would testify."

"If they think I have something to offer, I'll be glad to talk to them," Dodd said.

But he certainly will not invite himself to the witness table.

"That doesn't make any sense," Dodd said. "If they think I have something to say, they'll ask. This isn't volunteer work, you know."

Dodd certainly does not want to complicate his political life. He is up for re-election next year and has been mentioned as a possible running-mate for Gore in 2000 - and even as a dark-horse candidate if Gore should stumble.

Dodd long has been one of the eloquent voices of Democratic Party principles, and Clinton picked him in 1995 to help perform political CPR after the party's disastrous loss of the House and Senate in 1994.

As co-chair, Dodd was to be the face and voice of the party publicly and a cheerleader for demoralized Democrats nationwide. Fowler handled the "nuts and bolts," as Dodd put it, of running the office, making personnel decisions and supervising fund-raising efforts.

So, Dodd said, he knew little about the fund-raising activities, especially those undertaken by John Huang, who was responsible for much of the illegal or questionable foreign money that subsequently was refunded.

When the scandal began to unfold, Dodd categorically denied knowing Huang. But as evidence surfaced that they attended fund-raisers together, he has softened those denials.

"I'm not sure I ever met him," Dodd said. "I presume I did. I presume I did, but there has been so much in the press since last November ... that it is difficult to differentiate, frankly, what I knew and what I have learned from the press discussion about" fund-raising parties.

The Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers the Capitol, quoted unnamed Democrats as saying there was some grumbling about Dodd's willingness to let the blame fall to Fowler and others at the DNC.

Dodd brushed that aside, saying, "I'm always suspicious whether (unnamed sources) exist" and that there may be some Democrats who "want to create that impression."

"We're very good friends. Our families are close. There has been nothing like that from (Fowler) at all. Not ever," he said.

Acknowledging that he probably at least met Huang has raised the question of whether Dodd knows more about fund-raising activities than he has let on.

"I suspect he knew more about this. That's based on my experience of other people in similar positions and my knowledge about Dodd," said Dave Mason, the resident Congress watcher at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.

Mason said the committee probably was hesitant to question Dodd because of "senatorial privilege" - the practice of leaving colleagues alone and out of investigations unless there is a clear indication of wrongdoing or ethical lapses.

Mason added, however, any interest the committee has in Dodd does not involve the suggestion of wrongdoing - "It's not an ethics case. Nobody has charged him personally with violation of Senate rules."

"It's just natural that members of legislative bodies are reluctant to raise questions about their colleagues. There are legitimate reasons for that," Mason said. "If they can't get along on a day-to-day basis, they can't do other things."

Mason said he believes that if anyone besides a senator held Dodd's high party post, "They at least would have been deposed" by committee investigators.

But even if the senator knew more than he has acknowledged, Mason is not sure Dodd can add enough to the probe for the committee to justify brushing aside senatorial privilege.

"I think there are legitimate questions one can ask about what he knew, but there is not anything I have seen that indicates what he might know would lead anywhere," he said.

By Jon Frandsen, Gannett News Service