While Questioning Fowler, Committee Puts Spotlight on White HouseBy Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 1997; Page A04
It figured to be a debacle for the Democrats. Former party chairman Donald L. Fowler was the witness, and Republicans on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee finally had a crack at a higher-up with firsthand knowledge of the party's 1996 fund-raising misdeeds.
But while he took a good deal of heat for his faulty memory regarding Roger Tamraz and his Central Asian pipeline, Fowler got kid gloves treatment during much of yesterday's hearing as Republicans took a stab at laying responsibility for the Democratic National Committee's transgressions at the White House door.
The leading figure, Republicans suggested early in the day, was not Fowler, but former deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes: "I think you may be a little bit hard on yourself" by taking responsibility, suggested committee lawyer J. Mark Tipps, especially because, "as you put it in your deposition," the DNC financial staff "operated with a distinct sense of independence."
Tipps took Fowler through the deposition, reading whole passages and paraphrasing for nearly an hour, implying a relationship with Ickes in which Fowler was consistently trumped when questions of fund-raising policy arose.
"The bottom line [was] you felt the financial division was deriving its authority from the White House," Tipps said.
"Yes sir," replied Fowler. He and Ickes had a relationship of "dynamic tension," he added, harking back to the comic book formula that transformed Charles Atlas from a 97-pound weakling into a world-renowned muscle man.
The committee laughed, but Tipps's questioning had suddenly shunted Fowler to the sidelines right at the beginning of his testimony. This for the highest official yet to appear in the panel's campaign finance investigation and a major figure whose arrival had been anticipated for months.
The treatment of the soft-spoken Fowler, 61, a dapper, courteous political scientist from the University of South Carolina, contrasted markedly with that accorded to Haley Barbour, Fowler's flamboyant Republican counterpart who sparred exuberantly in an hours-long mud battle with Democrats in July.
Instead of going after Fowler, Tipps had thrust Ickes and, to a lesser extent, former DNC finance chairman Marvin Rosen into the spotlight. Committee Republicans said early this week they did not yet know whether they would call Ickes as a witness in the campaign finance hearings.
"We're just trying to lay the background," Tipps told reporters during yesterday's lunch break. "Our job is not necessarily to yell at the guy."
Democrats were pleased: "This is the day I feared above all," said Democratic committee spokesman Jim Jordan. "Fowler was in the middle of a lot of stuff. I don't think they've advanced the story."
For Fowler, the Ickes gambit opened a convenient escape hatch, into which Fowler quickly leaped: "I was looking back to your deposition last night," Tipps said. "You said they [the DNC financial division] seemed to have a . . . 'separate charter' . . . 'separate line of communication.' . . . Is that accurate, sir?"
"Yes," Fowler replied.
"And they seemed to do what they thought the White House wanted done and not necessarily what your office wanted done, correct?" continued Tipps.
"On some occasions, yes," said Fowler.
"And this problem, as you put it, manifested itself regularly on a continuing basis, did it not?" Tipps added.
"Yes," agreed Fowler.
It wasn't until mid-afternoon that Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) finally took Fowler to the woodshed on the Tamraz affair, reminding him "you're under oath," as he called into question "whether or not you're being truthful with this committee."
And Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), for one, did not buy the Ickes theory, quoting from committee investigators who asked Ickes in a deposition if he tried to circumvent Fowler. "Absolutely noté" Ickes replied.
Despite these glitches, Nickles, consistently the most belligerent questioner among the committee Republicans, said at the end of the day he thought Fowler emerged from the hearing relatively unscathed: "I just think for his lack of candor he was treated pretty gently."
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