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Chinese Plan to Buy U.S. Influence Alleged

By Edward Walsh and Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 9, 1997; Page A01

The Senate yesterday began long-awaited hearings on the campaign finance improprieties of 1996 with pledges of fairness and cooperation and an accusation that the Chinese government is trying to buy influence with American politicians.

In the most direct and aggressive statement to date about alleged foreign interference in the U.S. political process, Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) said that investigators from his Governmental Affairs Committee had found evidence of a Chinese plan "designed to pour illegal money into American political campaigns." He said its aim was to "subvert our election process" and that it touched the 1996 presidential campaign and state elections that year.

Thompson described the plan as the work of "high-level Chinese government officials" who committed "substantial sums of money" to achieve their goals. "Our investigation suggests the plan continues today," he said.

The chairman's opening statement was intended to get the delayed hearings off to a dramatic start and to draw attention to what Republicans hope will be one of the most productive parts of their investigation. Following Thompson, Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the committee's ranking Democrat, also sought a dramatic beginning, disclosing that John Huang, a central figure in the morass of questionable Democratic fund-raising practices during the last election cycle, had agreed to testify before the committee if given a limited grant of immunity from prosecution.

Huang, a prolific fund-raiser and former Commerce Department official who some Republicans have suggested may be guilty of espionage, previously had said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called before the committee. The panel later voted to pursue his offer, but several members, including Democrats, urged caution and expressed skepticism that a limited immunity agreement could be reached.

In his statement, Glenn also took aim at what he and other Democrats on the panel hope to make as much a focus of attention as Huang – the National Policy Forum established by then-Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, which Glenn charged was "little more than a front for the RNC" that was used to funnel foreign money to the GOP.

Yesterday's session was devoted to relatively brief presentations by each of the committee's nine Republicans and seven Democrats. Witnesses will begin appearing this morning, led by Richard Sullivan, the former finance director of the Democratic National Committee, who will be followed by other party officials, White House aides and independent fund-raisers.

Thompson provided no specific details about the alleged Chinese plan, saying that the committee would have further discussions about it in closed session. He said the committee's information had been developed along with a continuing FBI investigation. Committee Democrats and White House officials said later they thought Thompson had exaggerated the significance of the Chinese effort.

Saying that he has seen the same information as Thompson, Glenn said that Thompson's charges "went a little further than I would choose to go," which was why "I was not willing to sign off" on the statement.

"I have not seen any information that leads me to believe China was involved in that kind of direct funneling of money into campaigns," added Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). Both Lieberman and Glenn said the information they had seen suggested only that the Chinese government decided to step up its lobbying of Congress after the Clinton administration granted a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit the United States in 1995.

White House aides also said they believe they know everything Thompson does and do not see enough so far to prove illegal conduct.

"Because it's the opening statement of a senator, it's not necessarily dispositive of the matter," said David Johnson, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "It's our view that the [Justice Department] investigation is ongoing; they haven't drawn any conclusions and so we're not drawing any conclusions."

Although the White House has complained in the past that it was not being kept fully informed by the FBI, Johnson said yesterday that such concerns appear to have been addressed.

Officials at the Chinese Embassy said they would have no immediate comment. Chinese officials have previously denied any attempt to influence U.S. elections.

Foreign governments routinely engage in lobbying efforts to advance their interests, a legal activity. But contributions to U.S. political candidates by foreign individuals, companies or governments are illegal under U.S. election laws.

After months of partisan bickering, yesterday's session was largely cordial and restrained. But beneath their vows of mutual cooperation, both sides made clear that they have vastly different visions of what the hearings should be about and where they should lead.

Led by Thompson, GOP members of the panel focused attention on allegations of widespread campaign finance abuses during the last election cycle by the DNC, the White House and President Clinton's reelection campaign.

"There apparently was a systematic influx of illegal money in our presidential race last year," Thompson said. "We will be wanting to know: Who knew about it? Who should have known about it? And was there an attempt to cover it up?"

Thompson promised to hold hearings later on broader issues of campaign finance reform such as the growing use of unlimited "soft money" contributions to the two major political parties. But, he added, "we cannot move forward unless we have accountability for the past. We cannot let calls for campaign finance reform act as a shield to prevent examination of the violations of existing law. Otherwise, calls for reform will be viewed as merely partisan and the cause of reform will be hurt, not enhanced."

Other Republicans echoed these sentiments. Asserting that "we are here today largely because of an ethical indifference which some in the Democratic National Committee and the White House displayed toward fund-raising in the 1996 presidential campaign," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) urged Democrats on the panel to "go where the evidence leads."

"The White House and others under scrutiny must be more forthcoming," she added. "The president cannot credibly preach the gospel of campaign finance reform unless his aides and supporters are prepared to let the light of day shine on their activities."

"Some would suggest . . . we really don't need these hearings, we only need to reform the campaign laws," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). "But reforming the laws will not solve the problem if officials are already ignoring or violating those already on the books."

But it was precisely broad finance reform that the Democrats most wanted to talk about. If all the committee does is expose illegalities, including the use of foreign money in campaigns, Glenn said, "we will have failed in this investigation, and failed miserably."

"The measure of success for this investigation will be whether it produces congressional action for campaign finance reform – substantial reform, not the 'little bit of reform' some in Congress might advocate to reduce public pressure."

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said that while the committee would hear testimony about possibly illegal conduct, "the vast majority of what we're going to hear about and the bulk of the activity that creates concern and has the largest effect on the campaign process right now is what's legal – it's what's allowed by loopholes – and most of it involves so-called soft or unregulated money."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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