09/18/97 - 12:55 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Donor says money opened White House door

WASHINGTON - International oil man Roger Tamraz testified Thursday that he believes he was allowed to meet President Clinton, despite national security staff concerns, because he had made large donations to the Democratic Party.

"I did believe my contributions gave me access," Tamraz pointedly told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on campaign finance abuse.

Tamraz, who pitched an overseas oil pipeline project to the president at a Democratic Party event in 1996, disputed national security staff assessments he was an unsavory character unworthy of a visit with Clinton.

Though wanted in his birth country of Lebanon on embezzlement charges, Tamraz testified he had helped U.S. intelligence there and once was even tortured for assisting a covert U.S. operation.

"I would like to know, after all I have accomplished, lived through, seen and participated in I should be deemed unfit to visit the White House," said Tamraz, 57, now a U.S. citizen. "I have risked my life many times for this country for no material gain."

But when questioned by senators about whether his donations bought access to Clinton, Tamraz offered a candid response.

"Do you believe you would have been able to have the conversation with the president, however briefly ... without having contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the DNC (Democratic National Committee)" asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

"Honestly, no," replied Tamraz.

Later, asked by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., whether he got his money's worth, since the $300,000 didn't get his pipeline built, Tamraz brought laughter by responding, "I think next time I'll give $600,000."

One of those who pressed for Tamraz's White House visit, ex-Energy Department official Jack Carter acknowledged to the Senate panel that he probably told a White House national security aide that Tamraz would donate additional money to Democrats in return for a presidential meeting.

But Carter told investigators he was not attempting to pressure the National Security Council official to drop her opposition to such a meeting.

Tamraz described his pipeline project as an attempt to get Caspian Sea oil to western markets and provide jobs for U.S. companies.

Tamraz said decade-old embezzlement charges against him in Lebanon were trumped up because he negotiated with Israel in a quest to aide Middle East peace negotiations. He said he also was innocent of other charges in Jordan and France.

But committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., reminded Tamraz in sharp questioning that U.S. oil companies did not support his project and wrote U.S. officials complaining that he falsely claimed the firms' backing.

Besides the oil companies, Thompson said an inter-agency working group, Energy Department officials and the National Security Council also raised concerns that Tamraz exaggerated his support from U.S. and foreign officials.

Thompson said the White House "had all this information" about Tamraz and still allowed the businessman to meet the president.

On Wednesday, former national security aide Sheila Heslin testified she was under enormous pressure from Carter, the CIA and the national Democratic chairman to drop her opposition to a Tamraz-Clinton meeting.

Testifying that she thought she had been successful, Ms. Heslin said she was dismayed to learn that Tamraz had met with Clinton several times at Democratic functions.

At one meeting, Tamraz briefly told Clinton about his pipeline proposal. Clinton asked one of his top aides, Mack McLarty, to research it, and McLarty asked Energy Department official Kyle Simpson to check on its merits. Simpson assigned the task to Carter, an international specialist.

Carter told investigators he was well aware that the administration considered Tamraz to be unreliable because he "had grandiose ideas, but he seemed to overstate both his abilities and his ... commitments that he had from different people, particularly governments. So we ... were uneasy about him."

According to Carter, Simpson said McLarty wanted to know whether the president should meet with Tamraz. Carter said he opposed a meeting, but called Ms. Heslin, to ask whether there had been any change in her thinking toward Tamraz. "And I recall that she said, no, there is no change at all and that there shouldn't be any meeting."

But Carter said it was likely he also mentioned to Ms. Heslin Tamraz's offer to make more contributions if he could get his meeting with Clinton. Ms. Heslin's notes indicated that Carter told her the businessman had contributed $200,000 and would give $400,000 more for the meeting.

Carter said he got the contribution information from Simpson. Simpson said he knew nothing about contributions.

McLarty said in a statement to the committee that on Clinton's direction, he asked Simpson to gather information on the Tamraz pipeline proposal - but took no position on supporting the project.

McLarty and Simpson denied they were aware of Tamraz's contributions, or that he had offered additional donations if he got a meeting with the president.

"I did not know what Mr. Tamraz had contributed," McLarty said, specifically denying he ever mentioned the $200,000 and $400,000.

By The Associated Press

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