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Justice Dept. Again Opposes Immunity in Campaign Probe

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 1997; Page A09

The Justice Department refused again yesterday to agree to a grant of immunity from prosecution for five potential witnesses in the Senate investigation of campaign finance improprieties, prompting renewed Republican charges that the department is acting as a barrier to finding the truth about the source of questionable donations during the 1996 campaign.

"We have been slow-walked and deferred and had objections every step of the way," Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) said after the latest Justice Department refusal, delivered to the committee at a closed-door meeting yesterday morning.

Accusing the department of having "a hopeless conflict of interest" in investigating Democratic fund-raising transgressions, Thompson and other GOP senators also renewed their call for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising practices during the last election cycle.

"I do not have confidence anymore in the Justice Department's ability to carry out an investigation," Thompson said.

The committee could grant the witnesses immunity without the Justice Department's approval. It delayed until today a vote on that question to give staff aides time to explore what Thompson called "a couple of additional matters" that would provide an additional level of comfort to senators before the vote.

The panel's nine Republicans need the votes of at least two of the seven Democratic members to grant immunity to the witnesses, and there were hints yesterday that they may get more than that. Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the committee's ranking Democrat, stressed that the decision to delay the immunity vote for only one more day was unanimous.

The five witnesses the committee is seeking testimony from include four Buddhist nuns who contributed to a 1996 fund-raiser attended by Vice President Gore at a Buddhist temple in California and who were later reimbursed by the temple for their donations. The other witness is a Virginia woman who made a questionable contribution to the Democrats and has ties to Charles Yah Lin Trie, a longtime Arkansas friend of President Clinton's whose Democratic fund-raising activities are among those the committee is investigating.

The renewed GOP call for appointment of an independent counsel came from both Thompson and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). "There is an actual, palpable conflict of interest" in the Justice Department investigation, Hatch said. "It is time for an independent counsel. The Justice Department is becoming more and more politicized."

Under the independent counsel law, it is up to Attorney General Janet Reno to ask a special appeals court panel to appoint an independent counsel to conduct an investigation into alleged wrongdoing. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he was exploring the possibility of attempting to bypass Reno by having the Senate Judiciary Committee make that request directly to the judicial panel. But Specter acknowledged that this would raise "tough legal issues" and that the validity of such a tactic has never been tested.

In addition to voting on the immunity issue, the Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled today to begin three days of testimony on the National Policy Forum, a Republican think tank that Democrats charge was used to funnel an illegal foreign contribution to the Republican National Committee.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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