Ex-DNC Official Tells Panel He Wasn't Aware of Questionable Fund-Raising
By Edward Walsh
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee plunged into some of the details of last year's campaign finance controversy yesterday, with Republicans attempting to weave closer ties between President Clinton and the questionable practices of Democratic fund-raiser John Huang.
The first witness to testify before the committee, former Democratic National Committee finance director Richard Sullivan, described how Huang moved from the Commerce Department to the DNC in 1995 at the urging of Clinton, other White House officials and C. Joseph Giroir Jr., a Little Rock lawyer who represented the Lippo Group, an Indonesian-based financial conglomerate that once also employed Huang.
Sullivan said he and other DNC officials were concerned enough about how the inexperienced Huang would conduct himself as a fund-raiser that they ordered "extended training" for him concerning "what's right, what's wrong, what's legal, what's illegal" in political fund-raising. The whole fund-raising effort targeted on the Asian American community that Huang was to spearhead made both him and DNC finance chairman Marvin S. Rosen "a little nervous," Sullivan added.
Testifying in a soft, even tone, Sullivan denied ever being aware of any of the questionable practices that have since been linked to Huang and the Clinton reelection campaign.
"I was never and I emphasize never confronted at any time with any evidence or suggestion of willful misconduct, foreign government influence, sale of office, contributions in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act or other legal problems of that kind," Sullivan said.
Huang is a central figure in the fund-raising investigation by a Justice Department task force and by the the Senate panel chaired by Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.). The committee's ranking minority member, John Glenn (D-Ohio) surprised Thompson on Tuesday by announcing that Huang might be prepared to provide sworn testimony about his fund-raising work in exchange for limited immunity from prosecution. But the committee's hope of hearing directly from Huang appeared to be rapidly fading yesterday as Thompson announced that the Justice Department opposes granting Huang immunity, and panel members continued to express skepticism about the idea.
Huang is seeking immunity from prosecution for campaign fund-raising law violations, but not for any potential charges of espionage and selling state secrets that some Republicans have suggested he may have engaged in. Without immunity, Huang has said he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Thompson on Tuesday charged the Chinese government with attempting "to pour illegal money into American political campaigns" as part of a plan to "subvert our election process." The Chinese Embassy declared yesterday that China has had "absolutely nothing to do with the political campaigns of the United States."
"Our conduct of relations with the U.S. administration, Congress and other agencies has been in full compliance with the international norms and U.S. laws and regulations," the embassy said in a statement. "All the allegations against China on this issue are unfounded and will be proven untrue."
In Madrid, where he is attending a NATO meeting, Clinton also responded to the congressional investigation, confirming that in 1995, when Huang expressed interest in raising money for the Democratic Party, "I relayed that to someone at the DNC."
Clinton said he did not know whether Thompson's charges against China are true, but he said that such an attempt to intervene in U.S. political campaigns would be "a matter of serious concern" and should be the subject of "the most vigorous possible investigation" by the Justice Department.
At the end of Sullivan's first day of testimony he will continue today Democrats on the committee were quick to declare that they had heard nothing damaging from him. Glenn said Sullivan's decision to order special training for Huang "shows you're being very careful. That's encouraging to me. Efforts to paint it as something sinister are just flat wrong."
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) openly questioned why the Republican majority had chosen Sullivan as their first witness. If the testimony of the leadoff witness was so benign on the subjects of a possible China connection and other alleged illegal acts, he suggested, "one can only conclude that the final witness is unlikely to find China on a map."
Outside the hearing room, White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis dismissed the first day of testimony as an expensive exercise that produced only "old news." He said Clinton has never denied being pleased that Huang wanted to help raise money for the Democratic Party and his reelection campaign.
Republicans on the committee treated Sullivan gently yesterday except for a brief exchange with Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). Asked by Domenici about the White House coffees that Clinton hosted for Democratic contributors, Sullivan insisted that while these events were a useful tool to "energize" potential contributors, they were not fund-raisers.
"For the first time, I really believe you are spewing words to confuse things," Domenici replied in apparent exasperation.
But it was Huang who remained the focus of GOP attention yesterday. Sullivan said both Giroir and then-deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes urged his hiring by the DNC. It was only much later, after the 1996 campaign, that he learned that Clinton had also expressed the same desire to finance chairman Rosen, Sullivan said.
Members of the Justice Department's criminal division told Thompson committee staff members of their objections to granting immunity for Huang following a conversation between Thompson and Attorney General Janet Reno that briefly touched on the issue, a department spokesman said.
Prosecutors have criticized Huang's request, asserting that under various court rulings "limited" immunity would be deemed a blanket grant of immunity.
If the committee should vote to seek a court order granting Huang immunity, it would first have to give Justice 10 days' notice before filing a court petition. The department could then delay issuance of the order for another 20 days, but in the end the court would have to issue the order whether Justice approved of it or not.
Meanwhile, hoping to change the subject from the fund-raising controversy, Senate Democrats sent a letter to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), urging him to set a date for Senate consideration of legislation to revamp campaign finance laws so changes can go into effect in time for next year's congressional elections.
"The real scandal would be to go through another round of hearings and not fix the problem" that caused any abuses, said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
Lott spokesman Susan Irby said Lott wanted to "see where the investigations go before we look at a date for the legislation" and added: "The letter and its timing are a little disingenuous in that this is the same group that was stonewalling the investigations into illegal campaign finances."
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