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Senate Panel Weighs Cost Of Fund-Raising TestimonyBy George Lardner Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 1997; Page A04
As the Senate begins its hearings on campaign finance abuses today, investigators and senators will be mindful of a witness from another hearing long ago: former White House aide Oliver L. North.
North's case set the standard for what can happen when congressional witnesses are granted even limited, or "use," immunity from prosecution in return for their testimony on nationwide television. It is now all but impossible to sustain criminal charges against an immunized witness for any wrongdoing exposed in the process.
So while the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has a number of witnesses it would very much like to hear from notably Democratic fund-raiser John Huang and Chinese American businessman Charles Yah Lin Trie it must weigh carefully the costs of getting them to testify.
The lesson of the North decision, says former independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, the chief Iran-contra prosecutor, is that Congress must choose "between public hearings, which would promptly expose official wrongdoing, and prosecution of the wrongdoers, which would reveal the truth more slowly."
"We are very cognizant of the 'Ollie North problem,' " said Michael J. Madigan, chief counsel for the investigation.
Others on Capitol Hill are less concerned.
"I think finding out what happened is far more important than sending people to jail," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Sunday when asked on CBS's "Face the Nation" if people such as Huang and Trie should be immunized.
Senate investigators last month decided to grant immunity to four dummy contributors two Buddhist nuns allegedly involved in "donation laundering" and two Gaithersburg women identified as "straw donors" for a business partner of Trie. Investigators would like to immunize 13 other Buddhist nuns and monks involved in the alleged laundering of donations at several fund-raisers, including one starring Vice President Gore.
But at last report, the committee was still waiting to hear from the Justice Department on what its stance would be. Congress can grant immunity independent of Justice's views, but under the circumstances, the department's cooperation is important. A Senate or House committee can offer immunity only by a two-thirds majority of the full committee, a level requiring support from the Democratic minority as well as the Republican majority.
The Justice Department can delay the procedure, but in the end the court must issue an order requiring the named individual "to give testimony or provide other information" that might be incriminating.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), was unable to muster enough votes to offer immunity to anyone until June 27, when the Republican majority struck a deal with committee Democrats to approve immunity for the four witnesses in return for subpoenas the Democrats wanted.
The Justice Department has asked the lawyer for the 13 Buddhist nuns and monks for proffers statements of what each witness would say if immunized but the attorney has reportedly been tied up in other litigation and unable to respond as quickly as promised.
Thompson voiced his frustrations at the slow pace Sunday. Speaking on ABC's "This Week," he said he has "grave concerns about the speed" with which lawyers at Justice were addressing the issue. He said he felt Attorney General Janet Reno was dealing with the committee in good faith, but he expressed chagrin at "the people running the investigation over there."
The Justice Department "can't operate in a vacuum," Thompson said. "We've got hearings to conduct. The American people have a right to know."
Committee sources said the delays haven't caused any "substantive problems" yet, but have made planning of the hearings difficult. The committee may be asked to vote this week on immunity for the 13 Buddhists even if the Justice Department hasn't reported its views.
The department has voiced reservations, however, about immunizing one witness on the Republican list, a resident alien named Keshi Zahn, a $22,500-a-year records clerk and single mother who gave $12,500 to the DNC in February of 1996 to attend a Huang-organized fund-raiser at the Hay-Adams Hotel here.
Zahn contributed a total of $20,500 to various Democratic candidates and party committees in 1995-96, all at the request of one individual, but she will not name that person without immunity, an internal Senate memo said. "Our understanding," a committee source said, "is that the Justice Department is wary about her because they're not convinced that her proffer contains all that she knows."
According to DNC compilations, three fund-raisers Huang, Trie and Johnny Chung were responsible for raising $2.2 million of the $2.8 million in illegal, inappropriate or questionable contributions that have been refunded.
Huang has said he would testify if granted immunity from prosecution, but at the same time, congressional sources point out, he also says he's done nothing wrong.
Huang "says he wants immunity, but immunity for what?" one of the sources said. "We are certainly not going to immunize him until and if we determine he has valid and useful information."
The Justice Department has its own task force investigating Huang and others involved in last year's campaign financing controversies.
The North decision came after he was found guilty on three felony counts stemming from the Iran-contra scandal. A divided federal appeals court panel held in 1990 that many of the witnesses against North had been "thoroughly soaked" in his widely televised congressional testimony and that his trial may have been tainted as a result. The two-judge majority ordered elaborate post-trial hearings under conditions so rigorous that the entire case against North eventually was tossed out.
Until the North decision came down, prosecutors believed they could successfully bring a case against an immunized individual if they compiled their evidence independently, without using any of the immunized testimony and by insulating themselves from it.
Madigan said he still thinks an immunized witness could be successfully prosecuted if the government could clearly demonstrate the independence of its investigation and the fact that it had been started well before the witness was required to testify.
"There's been no test of this since the North decision," he said. But he acknowledged that prosecutors at Justice don't agree. The department has been considering getting its own grants of immunity for low-level witnesses, such as the Buddhist nuns, but that, sources say, is simply to secure their testimony for Justice's own investigation.
"If Congress wants to immunize John Huang, for example, obviously we can't stop them," said one government attorney. "But congressional questioning is not always as tightly focused as one would like. You can wind up granting more immunity than you want."
"Certainly if John Huang were on the witness stand, that concern would certainly apply," said Paul S. Clark, the Thompson committee's communications director. "But that's something that just hasn't come up yet."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company