Burton Postpones Hearings After Three Seek ImmunityBy Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, Sept. 17, 1997; Page A10
The House committee investigating campaign finance abuses abruptly canceled this week's scheduled hearings yesterday after three prospective witnesses refused to testify unless the panel granted them immunity from criminal prosecution.
Investigators scheduled the hearing after interviewing the witnesses during the last month without lawyers present, but the witnesses backed out once they obtained legal advice. Asking for immunity before the witnesses testified was "a no-brainer," said Charles J. Stephens, a Sacramento attorney for two of the witnesses.
The cancellation was an unexpected setback for Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who chairs the Government Reform and Oversight Committee. House Democrats and the Clinton White House have repeatedly questioned Burton's credibility and expertise to lead the investigative panel.
Burton did not respond to interview requests yesterday, issuing a short statement saying only that the hearing was "postponed" and that he and ranking minority member Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) were discussing the possible grants of immunity.
Waxman criticized the committee's leadership again yesterday. "It's been quite bizarre," he said, adding that Republicans "seem to be making one misstep after another. . . . I have thought for some time" that the committee was disorganized, "and these recent events have done nothing to dissuade me."
The action delayed for at least a week and perhaps for far longer the widely anticipated opening of House hearings. Similar Senate proceedings are in their seventh week.
The committee majority's chief counsel, Richard D. Bennett, sought to minimize the damage, saying that the prospective witnesses "indicated they didn't have a . . . problem coming forward" until the hearing was announced last week. Now they want immunity, he added, and the committee is having "constructive discussions" with the Democrats to grant it to them.
"There's not a great deal of confusion here," Bennett said.
Still, resolving the question of immunity for witnesses could complicate the hearing schedule. Senate investigators had prolonged arguments with the Justice Department over several weeks before deciding to grant immunity to more than a dozen witnesses involved in campaign shenanigans similar to those facing the Burton witnesses.
Also, the Republicans must have at least eight minority votes to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to grant immunity, and Waxman said he would decline to vote on immunity grants until the Justice Department outlined its views on the matter. "I may not go along with their position," Waxman said, "but I want to know what it is."
The three witnesses scheduled to appear Thursday include David Wang, a donor to the Democratic National Committee, Manlin Foung, the sister of former DNC fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, and Joseph R. Landon, a friend of Foung's.
Committee sources said Foung and Landon have told investigators that $35,000 they gave to the DNC was handed to them by Trie for an improper "pass-through" as a political contribution. Wang served as a "conduit" for a $5,000 contribution to the DNC, the sources said. It is illegal to contribute to a campaign in someone else's name.
Bennett said committee investigators tracked down the three during the last month and took voluntary statements from them. None of the witnesses requested legal advice, Bennett added, and "in fact, one witness expressly said he didn't want a lawyer."
But Stevens, representing Foung and Landon, said investigators misled his clients, telling them that "they really didn't need lawyers and that their interests would be protected. These are not people who have great familiarity with the criminal justice system or the federal government."
He said an immunity request was almost automatic in such a case, and Michael Carvin, representing Wang, agreed: "It's standard operating procedure that you don't have anybody in these circumstances discuss anything without immunity."
The witnesses' refusal to cooperate once again embarrassed Burton and Republicans.
Democrats first called for Burton to abandon the investigation after The Washington Post published a story in March about a lobbyist who said he had been "shaken down" by Burton for a $5,000 campaign contribution. The Justice Department is investigating the case.
Then in early July, the committee's chief counsel abruptly resigned, saying he lacked authority to run the probe because of the "self-promoting actions" of chief investigator David Bossie. Bennett became the new counsel, and Bossie remained with the committee.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company