08/26/97 - 05:57 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Campaign probe seeks AFL-CIO papers

WASHINGTON - Senate fund-raising investigators plan one last negotiation with the AFL-CIO before proceeding with a contempt-of-Congress action against the union for refusing to surrender subpoenaed documents.

Setting up a possible court showdown, the majority counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee said Republicans are prepared to initiate contempt proceedings when senators return next month from summer recess if the union does not reverse course.

"A private group cannot simply thumb its nose at a congressional subpoena," GOP counsel Michael Madigan said. "And we are simply not going to put up with it. And we are going to take appropriate action to get what is required.

"We'll make an attempt to resolve this one final time," he said. "And if it is not resolved the chairman will issue an order and a vote would be teed up for contempt."

Committee chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., has approved the response, Madigan said.

Citing its First Amendment right to promote political interests, the AFL-CIO has refused to turn over a wide range of documents the committee subpoenaed in May, including minutes of meetings and documents detailing internal discussions about its political activities.

The labor federation is among more than 30 nonprofit groups the Senate committee is examining to determine whether they improperly coordinated activities with the political parties or were otherwise misused to aid candidates in last year's elections.

The AFL-CIO and other subpoenaed groups spent millions on issue ads and so-called independent expenditures during last year's campaign.

Weeks of negotiation have refused to produce an agreement. Last week, the AFL-CIO sent the committee a letter saying it does not intend to comply with the subpoena even if that means going to court.

The subpoena amounts to an " unlimited search mission" and "would chill the exercise of First Amendment rights," AFL-CIO lawyer Robert Weinberg said.

The AFL-CIO's hard-line position, Madigan said, is threatening the committee's plan to focus on nonprofits during the second phase of its investigation this fall. Other subpoenaed nonprofits are now raising similar objections and waiting to see if the union federation prevails.

Any such delay poses problems for the committee because it faces a Dec. 31 deadline to complete its investigation.

Madigan said he will seek one last negotiation with AFL-CIO lawyers in which he will offer to identify the documents the committee wants most, but he warned that GOP negotiators are losing patience.

"We've been in negotiations with them about this far too long already and they have not produced one useful piece of paper," Madigan said.

To initiate contempt proceedings, Thompson first would have to issue an order enforcing the subpoena.

If the AFL-CIO refused to comply, the committee would then have to vote to find the organization in contempt and take it to court. The full Senate would have to approve a court challenge.

In December 1995, Senate Whitewater investigators forced a full Senate vote to take the Clinton White House to court over a lawyer's notes that had been subpoenaed. The White House surrendered the notes before the dispute reached court.

By The Associated Press