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News Analysis: Pursuit of Presidential Access Was Also Pursuit of American Dream (Sept. 19)

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On Washingtonpost.com
A profile of Roger Tamraz, from our Key Players section.
Tamraz Defends Political Gifts for Clinton Access

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 1997; Page A01

International businessman Roger Tamraz entertained the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday with a colorful and unapologetic account of how money buys high-level political access in Washington and told the panel he would consider giving more money in the future to make sure he gained entree to the inner circles of government.

Testifying without an attorney, Tamraz candidly told the committee that the "only reason" he contributed $300,000 to Democratic campaign committees and candidates during the 1996 election cycle was to gain access to senior government officials. At the time he was promoting a plan to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea region of Central Asia to Western markets.

Tamraz succeeded in being invited to six essentially social functions at the White House, but he did not gain government support for the pipeline project or a formal, private meeting with President Clinton. Asked by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) whether he thought he got his "money's worth" for the $300,000 he gave, Tamraz replied, "I think next time I'll give $600,000."

Despite Tamraz's candor about the reason for his political giving, yesterday's testimony did little to clarify the role of others who tried to help him pitch his pipeline proposal to the White House.

Tamraz, a Lebanese who became a U.S. citizen in 1989, acknowledged that he has not registered to vote. "This is a bit more than a vote," he said of his major contributions to both political parties.

He also defended his use of the existing campaign contribution system, arguing that it put him on a more equal footing with major oil companies that also make political contributions. Several oil companies opposed Tamraz's pipeline project.

"Who do I meet at the White House but my peers, all the oil company executives," Tamraz said. "So now they know that Roger is also there, so they can't bluff me. At least I neutralized their position.

"The day we don't have to pay, I would be the happiest," Tamraz added. "The oil companies have been paying for years. So a poor guy like me who gets blocked by [former National Security Council aide] Sheila Heslin has no alternative."

While Tamraz frequently evoked laughter in the hearing room, committee Republicans were clearly frustrated by the testimony of two other witnesses who appeared with him. Charles Kyle Simpson, a senior Energy Department official, and John Carter, a former official in the department, gave contradictory accounts of a conversation they had about Tamraz in April 1996.

They were responding to Heslin's testimony Wednesday that she was subjected to an intense campaign of pressure from others in the government and the Democratic National Committee to drop her opposition to granting Tamraz access to high-level officials, including the president.

According to Heslin, in a telephone conversation in early April 1996 that she called "my worst in government," Carter told her that Tamraz had contributed $200,000 to the DNC and would donate another $400,000 in return for a formal meeting with Clinton.

Carter yesterday did not dispute Heslin's account of the conversation, adding that he was "saddened" to learn she was so upset by it. He said they were friends and that "I would not try to bring any pressure on Sheila Heslin."

Carter also confirmed that he mentioned Tamraz's campaign contributions to Heslin and that he learned about them from Simpson. He said he spotted the figure $200,000 in handwritten notes on Simpson's desk.

"What I saw was handwritten notes and a discussion with Kyle," Carter said. "I thought it had to do with $200,000 and some additional amount. My recollection is of discussing contributions and amounts – $200,000 sticks in my mind – when I talked with Simpson."

But Simpson flatly denied discussing campaign contributions with Carter and said he had "no idea" what the origin of the $200,000 and $400,000 figures was.

Simpson said that in early April 1996, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, senior counselor to Clinton, asked him for information about Tamraz's pipeline project and that he asked Carter to check on it. But Simpson insisted that McLarty did not mention campaign contributions to him and that he did not discuss them with Carter.

"One of you is lying," Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) told Simpson and Carter.

In the midst of the hearing, the mysterious figure identified only as "Bob of the CIA" also resurfaced, with a lawyer. In a statement issued by Victoria Toensing, who identified herself on the statement as "Counsel for Bob," the Central Intelligence Agency official gave his version of his contacts with Heslin regarding Tamraz.

Heslin told the committee that the CIA's Directorate of Operations, where "Bob" works, provided incomplete and misleading information about Tamraz to the NSC and that "Bob" lobbied her on his behalf.

According to "Bob's" statement, he did provide "both positive and negative information" about Tamraz to the NSC, but in December 1995 he refused to approve an updated report on the businessman because it had been cleansed elsewhere in the CIA of "any negative information."

"At no time did Bob ever pressure for Mr. Tamraz to be admitted to the White House," the statement said.

Separately yesterday, the Justice Department granted swift assent to a House investigating committee's plan to grant immunity to three witnesses who Republicans say made straw donations to the DNC. The Justice Department's rapid response to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee – which just the day before sought advice on the immunity question – reflects new alacrity at the top of the much-criticized Justice Department task force. In contrast, it took Justice weeks to take a position on a grant of immunity to the Buddhist nuns who testified before the Senate committee about a fund-raising event.

The move by Justice was also a political boost to House committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.), whose staff was lambasted by Democrats this week as "Keystone Cops." Burton was forced to abruptly postpone hearings scheduled to begin Wednesday when the witnesses retained lawyers and announced they would not answer questions publicly unless they were given immunity from prosecution.

Burton defended his staff yesterday and said, "Based on what our investigators reported and the advice of those familiar with prosecution guidelines, I always felt that the Justice Department would agree that these people would not be prosecuted and that immunity would not be an issue."

Burton said he would now consult with Democrats on scheduling an immunity vote.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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