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With Bipartisan Impatience, Senate Panel Immunizes Buddhist Nuns

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 1997; Page A09

Republicans and Democrats holding Senate hearings on campaign finances have spent much of their time grappling for partisan advantage, but yesterday their mutual disgust with the Justice Department finally brought them together.

Ignoring the department's opposition, the Governmental Affairs Committee voted comfortably to grant immunity from prosecution to five minor figures in the investigation of fund-raising abuses in the 1996 Clinton reelection campaign.

Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) summed up the frustration of Republicans who have sought for six weeks to immunize as many as 18 witnesses, the vast majority of them alleged "straw donors" who were given large sums of money by third parties to contribute to the Democratic National Committee.

The committee had tried to ensure that the Justice Department was not planning to prosecute the witnesses, Thompson said, but Justice refused to make up its mind.

"They have told us they cannot tell us whether or not they might be [prosecuted] in the future," Thompson said, and this wasn't good enough: "I don't think we can accede to that kind of response in view of our own responsibilities."

For the first time, substantial numbers of Democrats agreed with him. "We are now in an impossible position in . . . our dealings with the Department of Justice," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). A meeting with Justice lawyers Monday "was not in any way helpful in terms of making this decision."

The committee voted 15 to 1 to grant immunity to four Buddhist nuns who were reimbursed for contributions they made to the Democratic National Committee at a temple fund-raiser in California attended by Vice President Gore in April 1996.

The committee also voted 13 to 3 to grant immunity to Keshi Zhan, a Virginia woman allegedly used as a "pass-through" donor by Democratic fund-raiser Charles Yah Lin Trie. The Senate committee in late June granted immunity to four other low-level witnesses when the Justice Department did not enter any objections.

Efforts to immunize the five witnesses had stalled for weeks, with Justice Department lawyers unable to say whether they might prosecute some of them for crimes or use the threat of prosecution to leverage their testimony against others.

A Justice official said last night that the department opposed the grants of immunity to the five prospective witnesses "because we want to preserve the right of prosecution."

Yesterday's proceedings began inauspiciously when Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who had bucked his Democratic colleagues in the past to support Republican immunity initiatives, mentioned that he shared the Justice Department's misgivings and announced that he would not vote for immunity this time.

Immunity "effectively forecloses the successful prosecution" of a witness, Lieberman said, and the witnesses' "value to us is not so significant that it justifies what this immunity will do to the criminal proceedings."

In the committee's recent stormy history, a reversal by a former ally usually has signaled a major misunderstanding and the onset of a partisan brawl, but Thompson, whose acerbic Tennessee drawl has sometimes fanned conflagration into bonfire, showed restraint.

Tension beset the committee, but only briefly. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), a fierce partisan, said he planned to vote for immunity and only wanted to know whether the committee could rescind it if Justice came up with better reasons.

Yes, said Thompson, and the tension deflated.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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