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Speeches Overshadow Answers

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 1997; Page A01

Senators investigating campaign finance abuse had plenty of theories to expound on and even more questions yesterday. But at the end of their first week of hearings, they were still scrambling for answers and not finding any.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) found a "surreal quality to this hearing." As he commented to witness Richard Sullivan, "I find it hard to understand some of the questions that have been asked of you."

In fact, many of the questions, like Durbin's own, were not questions at all. They were speeches, narratives, opinions and interpretations offered by the senators themselves. Some of these they tossed to Sullivan for comment, and if he declined to have an opinion, they filled in the blanks.

The Republicans had expected Sullivan, the former finance director of the Democratic National Committee, to help them show that President Clinton's reelection campaign had knowingly accepted or even actively sought illegal foreign contributions.

The evidence may come later, but Sullivan either couldn't or wouldn't provide it, despite repeated journeys over the same ground, and by the end of the day yesterday frustrated Republicans on the Governmental Affairs Committee were trying to make their case with little or no help from their opening witness.

Sullivan for long periods thus became a spectator at his own hearing, while senators told him about allegations he didn't substantiate: that the White House indecorously pushed the DNC to hire John Huang as a fund-raiser; that the DNC suspected Huang of soliciting illegal foreign contributions; that the White House either looked the other way or was complicitous when illegal contributions began to roll in.

"Let me take you through this and see what you think," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said at one point, as she discussed the 16 times Clinton administration officials tried to interest the DNC in hiring Huang.

She showed slides documenting the contacts with dates, and provided copies of the slides to reporters: "I understand that you aren't involved in all these contacts," Collins said as she finished her presentation, but now that Sullivan had seen the evidence, didn't he think the White House had overstepped?

Since it was early, Sullivan hemmed and hawed and finally said, "I can't answer your question." As the day wore on, he began to wear out, and prefaced his answers with phrases like "As I have said 15 times before . . . "

First to lean on Sullivan was committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who tried for a half-hour to get him to say that he had misgivings about Huang and feared that Huang "might in the future sometime raise foreign money, or money that would not be under the rules."

For this reason, Thompson suggested, Sullivan had ordered special training for Huang in the ethics of campaign finance, "Is that not true?"

"That's not correct," Sullivan said. Huang, unlike other fund-raisers, was inexperienced, and needed instruction.

So Thompson continued. Sullivan was bothered about Huang's desire to help get foreign nationals into White House coffees, he said. Yes, Sullivan replied, but only because foreigners can't contribute money, and that's what the coffees were for.

Thompson noted that the DNC eventually decided Huang wouldn't organize any more functions with Clinton's participation. Yes, Sullivan said, but that was because Huang was raising too much unregulated "soft money," and "not the hard federal dollars we desperately needed."

Finally a frustrated Thompson grinned and stopped: "Your concerns [about Huang] were borne out," he said. "It's kind of ironic we're having this little back-and-forth here when I'm trying to brag on you, you know, because you did the right thing."

Seeing the Republicans struggling, the Democrats used the knife in their own brand of declamatory questioning: "Questions have been raised about the integrity of the president of the United States," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.). What would be his reaction "if he had known someone was raising foreign contributions?"

"He would have been very upset," said Sullivan, less reluctant to respond to a Democrat.

By the afternoon, some senators on both sides were all but ignoring Sullivan. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) spoke for several minutes about the documentation the committee had amassed on the likelihood that two donors gave tens of thousands of dollars in illegal foreign contributions to the Democratic Party.

"I just want to give two illustrations," Specter said, finally turning to Sullivan. Did he know anything about it?

"I have no knowledge," Sullivan said.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) followed with a long address on the difference between "holding a fund-raiser" and "holding an event in relation to fund-raising." Everybody on the committee should know that the White House coffees were not fund-raisers per se, and thus not illegal, he said.

"If that makes no sense, maybe we should change it," he finished. He reflected for a moment before commenting on his comment: "That's not really in the form of a question."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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