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November 1, 1997

Campaign Panel to End Hearings on Fund-Raising


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    By FRANCIS X. CLINES

    WASHINGTON -- With a tone of frustration at the obstacles he faced, Sen. Fred Thompson put an end to the Senate's hearings on campaign finance abuses Friday, complaining that he had not been afforded enough time to do a thorough job.

    "I am disappointed we will not be able to lift the restriction of the cutoff," the senator said, referring to the Dec. 31 deadline set by the Senate, controlled by Republicans, for finishing the inquiry he led this year as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

    "I will not be holding hearings just for the sake of holding additional hearings," said Thompson, R-Tenn., while claiming qualified success in "re-energizing" the Justice Department inquiry into campaign abuses and helping to force the campaign overhaul issue onto the Senate agenda next year.

    Thompson's decision to forgo further public sessions brings a less than dramatic close to hearings that began sensationally in July with a promise to delve into accusations that the Chinese government had a plan to influence some United States elections last year.

    While that charge stands unproven, the consuming issue of campaign finance abuses is far from finished in this political city, as it awaits next year's round of big-money congressional campaigning.

    As Thompson made his announcement, Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of a parallel inquiry by the Republican-led House, immediately promised to maintain the focus on the White House by resuming his own aggressively open-ended campaign hearings next week.

    In addition, Attorney General Janet Reno faces a series of deadlines in the next four weeks related to the possible appointment of an independent counsel who would have wide powers to investigate fund-raising practices by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

    The Justice Department's separate criminal inquiry into accusations of campaign abuses has increasingly become a focus of attention as a result of the Senate committee's airing of various accusations of schemes to launder political money and barter access during the elections last year.

    "Watergate, I guess, spoiled us a little bit," Thompson said of what he deemed unrealistic demands to produce "the smoking gun" from among the widespread big-money solicitation practices the committee looked into in 32 days of public hearings on the financing of the presidential campaign.

    "It's a big malleable mess," he said in one of several interviews Friday, as he summarized the difficulty of catching the public's attention with the complex scandal accusations. "It's a bunch of different scandals all intertwined, but it has no consistent story line."

    Democrats, to the last minute of the last hearing, accused Thompson of a partisan focus on Clinton's campaign. But they conceded Friday that the Senate hearings had stoked the pressure on Congress to consider revamping the arcane, often unenforceable, laws governing campaign fund-raising.

    "I'm glad the hearings are over," said Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking committee Democrat who dueled daily with Thompson at the hearings. "We made more people around the country aware of some of the problems, albeit not on a bipartisan basis, as I had hoped.

    "Both sides do it and it's wrong," he added, looking toward the vote on curtailing campaign spending that the Republican Senate leadership was forced to agree to after recent weeks of obstructive tactics by pro-reform members.

    The White House had a similar reaction. "Now it's time to move on to the next stage of the process, which should be an up-or-down vote, then final passage, of bipartisan, comprehensive campaign-finance reform," said Barry Toiv, a White House spokesman.

    Thompson said that while he would be concentrating on writing the inquiry's final report by the end of the year, the committee staff would continue investigating some open questions with the White House, like phone logs and campaign videotapes that recently came to light. He said the committee would remain subject to his call, with the possibility of further hearings.

    The chairman left little doubt, however, that the hearings were effectively closed. "We do not have the caliber of witnesses and information" on hand to justify further sessions, he said.

    At his news conference, in the Senate television gallery, Thompson repeatedly said that the committee could have gone further if there had not been a Dec. 31 deadline. That allowed various subpoenaed witnesses to indulge in "slow-walking" tactics, he said, defying the committee's call to testify because they knew that subpoenas would lapse with the new year.

    Thompson was referring to "people who are now out of the country, people who are now taking the Fifth Amendment." Three, in particular, are at the heart of the inquiries into questionable fund-raising of hundreds of thousands of dollars: John Huang, a former Commerce Department official and Democratic National Committee fund-raiser; Yah Lin Trie, a Little Rock restaurateur and longtime friend of Clinton, and Johnny Chung, a freewheeling California businessman once close to the president.

    Thompson was asked about the deadline problem and the open doubts about the $2.6-million inquiry expressed by Senate majority leader Trent Lott. "I don't want to complain too much about that," he replied. "Most everybody gets a feel for what the deal is."

    Lott had sought to block the main bill that would have overhauled the campaign finance laws but pressure on him to yield grew with the Senate hearings.

    Saying he had spent 40 percent of his working time dealing with political questions, Thompson asserted that if the Senate leadership and committee chairman could not agree on a hearing's basic direction and purpose on such a critical issue, "they shouldn't do it."

    Even so, Thompson claimed basic success in his mission "to pull the curtain back a little bit for the American people and let them see how the government operates."

    "We've seen the way groups are used in our political process," he said, insisting that Clinton officials "pushed way beyond the limit" in focusing on such opportunities as a Buddhist temple and an Indian gaming casino proposal in their search for campaign contributions.

    The Senator claimed credit for motivating the Justice Department to expand its criminal inquiry into campaign fund-raising. "You may see some grand jury action," he said. And of the promised campaign spending debate next March, he said, "Friends, that's progess."

    The senator was hardly funereal and he was openly amused when asked how the inquiry's focus on big-money political abuses might affect any ideas he has about running for president.

    "It has occurred to me: 'Am I cutting my own throat if I wanted to do something later on?' " admitted the senator, one of the few Republicans favoring a ban on the unregulated "soft money" political spending that his hearings showed to be at the heart of big-money campaign problems.

    Thompson offered a fatalistic smile at his own party's rigorous presidential nominating circuit, while describing it as more "preposterous" than scandalous in depending on fat-cat donors.

    "You have the preposterous aspect of it where you have to spend every waking hour in a small room with rich white people, you know, in Republican primary politics," said the committee chairman, promising to meet his year-end deadline for summarizing the spending abuses of presidential politics.




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