07/09/97 - 12:42 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Immunity is risky business

WASHINGTON - John Huang's request for limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying to Congress in the campaign finance scandal will be a tough sell.

The reason dates to a Washington scandal of a decade ago. In 1990, Oliver North's conviction on charges relating to the Iran-contra affair was overturned because he had testified earlier to Congress. That testimony had been given under immunity, which meant he couldn't be prosecuted using evidence exposed in his testimony. His trial was supposed to have been based on evidence developed separately by investigators. But an appeals court said his appearance before Congress might have influenced the outcome of his criminal trial.

Because of that precedent, it is difficult to prosecute someone who is granted immunity to testify before Congress.

"So far, there's been an appreciation (by the committee) of the effect of immunity on prosecutions," said Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg.

In this case, Huang is seeking limited immunity, which would protect him from being prosecuted on the basis of his Senate testimony on all matters except evidence of espionage or perjury. Among the questions is whether Chinese officials got classified information from Huang in exchange for contributions to the Clinton campaign.

The Justice Department can't prevent Congress from granting immunity. But it can ask for a delay if the immunity might interfere with its plans to charge someone.

If the Senate committee votes to give Huang immunity, it would be required to give Justice 10 days' notice. The department could ask a court for an additional 20-day delay.

In a letter to the committee, Huang's lawyer, Ty Cobb, said Huang wanted to clear up allegations against him and "acknowledge whatever mistakes he may have made."

"I wouldn't give him immunity. If some of the things we're looking at are as serious as they would appear to be, there's a possibility of criminal actions on behalf of the Justice Department," said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.

By Judi Hasson and Judy Keen, USA TODAY

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