August 2, 1997

A Day of Spin Follows a Month of Hearings


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  • Political Fund-Raising Index

    WASHINGTON -- Senators from both parties who are conducting the investigation of campaign financing mostly concurred Friday that the first month of hearings had produced evidence of abuses, but Republicans and Democrats disagreed on the implications.

    The hearings presented a cast of shady offstage characters who threw themselves and their money into last year's races, often illegally, but the testimony exposed no scandalous behavior by elected officials and no evidence that a conspiracy had affected the outcome of the elections. On this, they all agreed.

    But while Republicans held that the testimony mostly showed that fund-raising by the White House and the Democratic Party had got out of hand, the Democrats had a different twist. They said what was proved was how corrupt the whole campaign finance system had become, and that reform was needed.

    And while Republicans conceded that they had not proved that the Chinese government had intervened in the American electoral process, they argued that the possibility had not been disproved either. Democrats said there was nothing to the accusation but innuendo.

    After four weeks of testimony, the hearings recessed on Thursday. When they resume after Labor Day, the senators said, they will deal further with illegal foreign donations, which were the focus of the first month of hearings, and also with such matters as the use of White House functions to raise money, as well as the large amount of unregulated contributions from companies and labor unions that flowed into party coffers last year.

    President Clinton, many other Democrats and a few Republicans like Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who is chairman of the committee conducting the hearings, have expressed hope that abuses exposed in the testimony will lead to changes in the campaign finance law.

    But Republican leaders in Congress say the law is not the problem, and the chance that legislative changes will even be addressed this year is uncertain at best.

    At a news conference Friday morning, Thompson summed up the hearings this way:

    "The facts are that there were tremendous amounts of illegal money in campaigns last year. Much of this was foreign. You had individuals who were facilitating it who were people that we don't know much about. They had tremendous access to the White House. These people are taking the Fifth Amendment or are absent. Those are facts that we know."

    Thompson conceded that the testimony had produced "no shocking revelations." But he added, "There are bits and pieces and there's texture and there are small new pieces of information, and that makes the picture a lot clearer."

    At the White House, Lanny Davis, the spokesman on campaign finance matters, said the hearings had left the president so far unscathed.

    "We've said for the last six months that we are responsible for some serious problems on our side of the fence and we accept responsibility," Davis said.

    The question of Chinese influence is one that has dogged Thompson since the hearings began. In an opening statement on the first day, he said that China had had a plan to influence American elections and that "our investigations suggest it affected the 1996 presidential race."

    That has not been substantiated by any public evidence presented so far. When he was asked about it Friday, Thompson said, "I'm not going to get into the factual details on that."

    But he went on to note that "all these unsavory characters" whose names came up in the first month of hearings, like John Huang and Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, had been regular visitors to the White House and had ties to China.

    "Those are just the facts," the senator said. "We're not in a trial, where you have to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt."

    At a separate news conference, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking Democrat of the investigating committee, and three of his Democratic colleagues took pains to say that they had no intention of defending people whom one, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, called "rogue donkeys."

    Glenn said, "Certainly there were a lot of questionable or illegal fund-raising practices being employed."

    And Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey declared, "I have been angered and embarrassed that the leadership of this party was not more careful about the people it hired and the way the affairs of the party were managed."

    But the Democrats were adamant in declaring that none of the evidence they had seen, either in public sessions or in classified briefings by the CIA and the FBI, led to the conclusion that the Chinese had influenced the presidential campaign.

    The Chinese had a plan to become involved in American politics, the Democrats said. They may have actually tried to carry out the plan in some congressional races. But there is "no evidence," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, "that it was aimed at the presidential race or that it affected the presidential race."

    There was bipartisan agreement among the members of the investigating panel, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, that these points had been proved:

    -- The administration was less than vigilant in scrutinizing who was allowed into the White House and who got to see the president, and the Democratic Party paid too little attention to where its donations were coming from.

    -- During the time he worked in the Commerce Department and for the Democratic National Committee, Huang maintained close contact with his former employer, the Lippo Group, an international conglomerate that is based in Indonesia and has business in China.

    -- Huang raised a considerable amount of money for the party illegally and had an unusual amount of access to the White House.

    -- Trie, who tried to prosper from a relationship with Clinton that dated from their days together in Little Rock, Ark., raised and laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars for the party in illegal contributions from abroad and arranged for much more to be donated by members of a Buddhist sect to the private fund collecting money to pay for Clinton's personal legal expenses. The money has all been returned.

    -- Haley Barbour, the Republican Party chairman during the 1994 and 1996 election campaigns, solicited money from a Hong Kong businessman that, through a circuitous route, wound up in the Republican Party's coffers and was used in election campaigns.

    But the senators concurred that the testimony had fallen short of showing that Huang had been an industrial spy for foreign interests, that Trie had been taking orders from abroad or that Barbour's activity had broken the arcane campaign finance law.

    Thompson said these and other matters might never be proved conclusively. Like so many trials he was involved in as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, Thomson said, the case in the end will probably turn on circumstantial evidence.

    "At the end of the hearings," he said, "people will have to look at the totality of the circumstances."

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