09/16/97 - 01:12 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Witnesses demanding immunity from prosecution

WASHINGTON - The first three witnesses scheduled to testify at House hearings on campaign-finance abuses are demanding immunity from prosecution, forcing postponement of their appearance this week, the panel's chief counsel said Tuesday.

The three were scheduled by the panel's chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., to testify Thursday about being asked by make "straw donations" to the Democratic Party on behalf of others. But their eleventh-hour demand for immunity threw Burton's plans to start hearings this week in disarray, committee aides said.

Lawyers for Manlin Foung, who is the sister of Democratic fund raiser Charlie Trie, and two other witnesses notified the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee that they want immunity from prosecution before appearing at hearings, said Richard Bennett, the committee's chief counsel.

Bennett said that Burton would confer with Democrats on the panel about whether they would be willing to join GOP members in voting to confer immunity on the three witnesses.

A two-thirds vote is needed to confer immunity, meaning that seven Democrats would have to join 23 Republicans in approving the grants. One Republican member, Rep. Steve Schiff of New Mexico, is ill and would not vote.

One leading Democrat, Pennsylvania Rep. Paul Kanjorski, has raised the possibility his colleagues would withhold support for immunity unless the chairman was more cooperative to the minority.

But Bennett said, "We are hopeful the Democrats will join us in that regard."

Democrats will want to know what the Justice Department thinks about immunity, as well as the Senate's chief investigator, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said a Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Burton had scheduled to start hearings on Wednesday with opening statements by members of the committee. That proceeding is likely to be cancelled and Burton hopes to schedule a Thursday vote on immunity at a business meeting, Bennett said.

Committee lawyers are also consulting with the Justice Department, which is investigating the activities of Trie, John Huang and other Democratic fund-raisers, he said.

None of the three witnesses has been contacted by government prosecutors, and Bennett said the committee's investigators do not believe they would likely be charged with crimes for giving a donation on behalf of someone else.

"Basically, we have always felt that while they don't need immunity, the offense has not fallen within the Justice Department" guidelines for prosecution, Bennett said.

The Justice Department's campaign-finance task force, however, objected to immunity grants the Senate panel conferred on three Buddhist nuns who testified about their temple's scheme to reimburse 11 monastics for $55,000 donated to the Democratic Party following a fund-raiser attended by Vice President Gore.

Besides Ms. Fuong, who operated a Little Rock restaurant with her brother, the other witnesses are her friend, Joseph Landon, and David Wang, a Democratic fund-raiser in California.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.