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Few Answers; First Hearing Witness Deploys No Bombshells

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 1997; Page A08

He was a fresh-faced, neatly groomed fellow in his early thirties who had come to the Capitol to talk about his days as finance director for the Democratic National Committee.

"You've been straightforward and cooperative," Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) said. "You would obviously prefer not to be here today."

It was the first of many times the senators tried to put thoughts in the head of Richard Sullivan, and at the end of four hours of testimony, the audience wondered whether he had said anything useful.

No, said President Clinton's lawyer Lanny J. Davis, standing outside the Hart Building hearing room, trying to get the spin moving in the White House's direction. "There is no news here."

Ten feet of carpet away, Republican chief counsel Michael J. Madigan was not so sure. Sullivan's remarks, he said, were not as "forceful" as the testimony from his month-old deposition.

So, a reporter asked, "was he a bum witness?"

"He's trying the best he can to answer the questions," Madigan said.

So, another reporter asked, "Is he the John Dean of this investigation?" invoking the name of another fresh-faced functionary whose testimony buried President Richard M. Nixon a quarter-century ago during the Watergate hearings.

No, Madigan said, "I wouldn't want to characterize anybody as a John Dean figure."

Sullivan's only obvious distinction was that he was the first witness in hearings that aim to find out whether foreign governments – especially China – were pouring money into Democratic coffers in hopes of influencing the 1996 presidential elections.

Sullivan did not know. At least a half-dozen times.

"Don't you find it extraordinary," mused Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) at one point, "that you have no knowledge of foreign governments' influence . . . and you were the lead witness before this committee?"

"Yes," he paused as a rumble of laughter began, "I did find that . . . extraordinary."

"I do too," said Torricelli. If this was the best the committee could do for openers, he added, "one can only conclude that the final witness . . . is unlikely to find China on a map."

Republicans were not amused. They had expected Sullivan to give blockbuster testimony about the DNC's hiring and vetting of fund-raiser John Huang, characterized in the hearings as everything from an inept mischief-maker to a Manchurian Candidate sent by China to infiltrate the American political process.

Sullivan did not have the goods.

He did not know whether President Clinton had a role in Huang's hiring; did not know if Huang had arranged for illegal contributions at a Buddhist temple fund-raiser attended by Vice President Gore; admitted "a mistake" in helping arrange a White House coffee visit for a Chinese arms dealer and trade official.

Instead, he showed the DNC in a kindly light. When Huang came to work for the DNC in late 1995, Sullivan was worried that Huang, approaching middle age and with no serious professional fund-raising experience, needed training in campaign finance ethics.

Huang, Sullivan said, was "a different sort – he was not your typical 25-year-old fund-raiser that we hire from a congressional office." So Sullivan, only 32 himself, said he asked DNC counsel Joseph Sandler to train Huang in election law, and Huang pronounced it a success.

Except Sandler told the committee in a deposition that he had only "a general, vague recollection" that Huang attended an orientation session, said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). "There's a possibility Mr. Huang was lying to you. Is that not true?"

"Senator, I – " began Sullivan.

"I'm not asking you did he or didn't he," said Bennett, and continued for several minutes: "Is that a possibility? . . . You don't know whether it's a possibility that he was lying? . . . Or are you going to say that Mr. Huang has never lied to you?"

Sullivan would not bite, and Bennett finally relented, acknowledging he was unfairly trying to put him on the spot.

But Sullivan, who insisted, "I don't want to speculate," was clearly off the spot, and so, for the moment, was the DNC. "We're saying: 'Here's a person we think may be susceptible, so we make a special effort to train that person,' " summed up the committee's ranking Democrat, John Glenn (Ohio). "I think that's very responsible."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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