07/08/97 - 05:27 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

China, Huang top fund-raising hearing

WASHINGTON - Opening long-awaited hearings into fund-raising abuses, a Senate chairman said Tuesday that China plotted to influence U.S. elections with illegal money in a secret operation that may still be under way. Meanwhile, a key holdout witness made an offer to testify and "acknowledge whatever mistakes he may have made."

The charge about the Chinese government plot came from Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson as he gaveled to order three-weeks of hearings that promise the most extensive look ever at presidential campaign fund-raising.

Two Democrats said they weren't ready to go as far as Thompson in characterizing classified information given the committee about China's political activities.

"I don't see specific evidence of the specific conclusion that China funneled money into American congressional campaigns," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., told reporters.

"I have seen nothing that would lead me to go quite that far," said Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the panel's ranking Democrat.

Democrats demanded that both parties' fund-raising excesses be aired.

"The abuses have been bipartisan, and our investigations must be bipartisan," said Glenn, who used charts to document one example he said showed foreign money made its way into a GOP-linked tax-exempt group.

John Huang, a central figure in the investigation who for months has refused to testify or provide some documents without immunity, made a last-minute offer to testify about allegations he was a spy while still insisting on immunity for any testimony about fund raising.

"Having become a defenseless target for Asian bashers ... Mr. Huang feels compelled to forego the security of his constitutional protections and to attempt honorably to acknowledge whatever mistakes he may have made over time," wrote Ty Cobb, Huang's attorney.

Thompson was receptive to the offer but skeptical. He and Glenn instructed the committee's lawyer to try to negotiate an arrangement. But he cautioned that serious questions must first be resolved, including whether the panel could legally give Huang immunity for only part of his testimony.

On a day of opening statements by the committee's nine Republicans and seven Democrats, Thompson immediately launched into one of the most serious allegations - that China sought to influence the outcome of America's elections in 1996.

"The committee believes high-level Chinese government officials crafted a plan to increase China's influence over the U.S. political process," the Tennessee Republican said. He said the committee has identified specific steps to advance the plan "inside and outside the United States."

China has repeatedly and angrily denied such allegations.

Thompson said China undertook the covert effort to counter fears that Taiwan - which China considers a rogue province - was growing closer to the United States.

"Our investigation suggests the plan continues today," Thompson said, adding that some of the evidence is sensitive and could only be discussed in closed session.

An individual familiar with the probe, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thompson's statement was based on information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies during a 14-month-old counterintelligence investigation of China.

He said U.S. intelligence officials declined to testify - even in closed session - but agreed after lengthy negotiations to provide the facts that Thompson read aloud.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, whose great grandfather emigrated from China, pleaded for fairness. "We should not be guilty of selective harassment of those with Asian surnames," he said. "I do not hold all Asian-Pacific-Americans responsible for the alleged actions of a few."

Glenn disclosed Huang's offer to testify before the committee without a grant of immunity on the issues of whether he committed economic espionage or disclosed classified information when he worked for the Commerce Department.

A Republican congressman has accused Huang of espionage, but Huang's lawyer writes that such allegations are "unfounded and insensitive."

Glenn said Huang would not testify about possible campaign finance and government ethics law issues without a grant of immunity, which would shelter him from prosecution on the basis of his Senate testimony. About RING half the $3.4 million Huang raised in 1996 for Democrats was returned because of suspicions about its origins.

Democratic National Committee finance director Richard Sullivan will be called Wednesday as the first witness.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said Sullivan would detail the extensive role the White House played in the Democratic fund-raising machine last year, including how then-deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes "presided over weekly money meetings" and how Huang came to be hired as a fund-raiser.

The months leading up to Tuesday's start have been marked by partisan sniping over attempts to extend limited immunity to witnesses and over allegations that each side was trying to impede the investigation.

While majority Republicans talk of foreign money collected by Democrats to help reelect President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Democratic senators said they want the public to hear that foreign funds went into Republican coffers too.

However, Thompson, as chairman, controls the agenda, and most witnesses this month will testify about irregularities in the Clinton-Gore fund-raising machine.

The stakes are high for Thompson, said to have presidential ambitions, and for Gore, who was intimately involved in a Democratic fund-raising machine the president now acknowledges was out of control. Gore could be embarrassed by testimony about a Buddhist temple fund-raiser he attended where illegal donations were made.

Clinton and Gore haven't been asked to testify, and it's possible they won't be. The president will be in Europe for most of this week attending to the expansion of the NATO alliance.

Asked about the hearings as he shook hands with well-wishers at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain, Clinton said, "I don't even know. I can't comment on it. I've been here working."

By The Associated Press

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