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Huang's Offer to Testify Raises Skepticism About an Immunity DealBy Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 1997; Page A06
John Huang's surprise offer to testify before Congress as it opened hearings on campaign fund-raising yesterday looked tantalizing to politicians on both sides of the aisle. But legal experts said that if a deal is worked out, it could come with plenty of strings attached.
The offer under which Huang would agree to testify freely about espionage allegations but only with immunity about his fund-raising efforts for the Democratic Party was negotiated in secret by Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the ranking Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee, and his chief counsel. It was hatched over the past three weeks, finalized after a weekend of talks ending at 6:30 a.m. yesterday and sprung on committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) minutes before the television cameras were set to broadcast.
The significance of Huang's offer presented with dramatic effect in Glenn's opening statement may ultimately be to paint Huang as a willing would-be witness eager to alter the darker profile that has emerged from published allegations that he was a conduit for foreign funds into U.S. electoral politics. Many lawyers expressed doubts yesterday about whether Congress could legally or politically agree to offer Huang limited immunity, though some thought a deal could be worked out.
"Mr. Huang is eager to dispel the unfortunate allegations of economic espionage which have been directed at him," said his lawyer, Ty Cobb, in an interview yesterday. Cobb is set to meet Friday with Thompson's chief counsel, Michael J. Madigan, one of those who expressed skepticism.
Huang, said Cobb, has been isolated at his Glendale, Calif., home for months, cut off from friends and associates. He is anxious to clear his name, particularly because of his concern that fund-raising allegations have unfairly cast Asian Americans in a bad light. Cobb said he is optimistic that, with some creativity, an arrangement can be reached for Huang to testify.
"I've talked to Democrats who thought it was impossible and Republicans who thought it was a great idea," Cobb said. Despite Thompson's irritation at being kept in the dark about the negotiations, he appeared warmer to the idea of granting Huang immunity than Glenn did.
"It's new information, it's very important and it's encouraging," Thompson said. "Clearly we will pursue that," he added later.
The key next step will be the receipt of a "proffer" from Huang a description of what he would tell the panel in return for immunity.
"I will say that I don't know whether I would grant immunity," Glenn said. But, he added later, "everything's academic without a proffer." He said he also wants to know the Justice Department's opinion on immunity for Huang, but agreed with Thompson that the Senate would ultimately make its own decision.
Thompson said a letter from Cobb outlining his offer raised a difficulty in that by requesting "limited immunity," Huang "may be asking for something we can't give." Still, he held out the possibility "we may be able to offer him complete immunity."
Prosecutors steeped in immunity issues were skeptical of the offer, with one calling it "essentially meaningless." Congress, this prosecutor said, can obtain a court order immunizing Huang from criminal prosecution arising from testimony he gives, but cannot slice it so that he is immunized for some answers he gives, but not others.
"If he gets an immunity bath, he gets an immunity bath, period," said former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova.
Madigan said Huang may be interested in making a deal with the Senate because the Justice Department was getting ready to prosecute him: "I met with Justice about two months ago, and they were adamantly opposed to immunity for Huang," Madigan said.
"Of course he'd love to come in and testify what a great deal," said another congressional investigator. "He is facing potentially many, many violations of criminal statutes. If you make the decision to immunize Huang you give him a pass on everything. Even though we're not bound by [objections from] Justice, they'll have a cow over that."
Nevertheless, the investigator said, any chance of getting Huang to testify will be ardently pursued. "We will go at it cautiously but aggressively, because we'd love to have him."
"If Congress takes the position they can't do this, it's based on a very, very narrow reading of the congressional immunity statute," said Cobb, a former federal prosecutor.
"It's an unusual proposal, but it would have to be done with an agreement really to bifurcate the questioning," said Richard Ben-Veniste, once a special Watergate prosecutor and Democratic counsel in the Senate Whitewater investigation. "Practically, if there's a spillover between campaign finance areas and so-called espionage areas, that would make it more difficult."
Another defense attorney, Plato Cacheris, also said he thought an arrangement confining immunity to a specific area could theoretically work "if it were spelled out in advance." But he added that the suggestion opens up "a very treacherous path" and might not win the needed two-thirds of the votes from the Thompson committee.
A decision to immunize Huang could be seen as undermining the criminal justice process. The conviction of former White House aide Oliver L. North was thrown out by an appeals court, based on immunized testimony he had given before congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra scandal in the 1980s. That 1990 decision has become the prevailing immunity case.
Meanwhile, new details continued to emerge about Huang's access to classified information. It was previously reported that Huang, while a Commerce Department official, attended more than 100 meetings in 1994 and 1995 during which classified material might have been discussed. Yesterday, congressional investigators said a list that the department recently turned over to House committees showed that at least eight meetings occurred at the White House.
A White House official said last night that Secret Service records do not show Huang was present on three of those dates, and that four other meetings did not include any discussion of classified material.
On Sept. 26, 1994, Huang met at the National Security Council with Sandra J. Kristoff, who headed the Asian affairs office, presumably to talk about an upcoming Asian economic summit. "Based on records available, we cannot determine whether classified information was or was not discussed at the meeting," the official said.
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta, George Lardner Jr. and Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company