Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 1997; Page A01
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings on campaign finance abuses erupted yesterday into a heated round of accusations, beginning with a demand by the committee chairman, Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), that President Clinton "step up to the plate and take responsibility" for Democratic fund-raising practices during the 1996 election cycle.
The partisan attacks delayed the appearance of the day's star witness, former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, a key figure in the investigation. Five hours later, when Ickes finally testified, he forcefully defended the Democrats' 1996 fund-raising operation in a prepared opening statement and told the committee that "your complaint is with the law, not with us. We played by the rules. You and only you have the power to change the law and change the rules."
There was no time left for Ickes to be questioned and he was told to return today.
During the course of the day, two Republican senators demanded Attorney General Janet Reno's ouster from the Justice Department while Democrats strongly defended Reno and complained bitterly about lack of cooperation from Republican organizations that they are seeking to investigate.
It all started when Thompson opened the meeting by showing excerpts from some of the videotapes of controversial White House coffees that Clinton attended with supporters. The tapes were delivered to the committee Saturday, months after they were first requested and more than two months after a July 31 subpoena for them. Vowing a thorough investigation of the delay, Thompson accused the White House of "trying to run out the clock on the committee," which has a Dec. 31 deadline to complete its investigation, and of engaging in "a clear pattern of delay, foot-dragging, concealing."
Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the panel's ranking Democrat, retorted that if Thompson was serious about getting answers, there was someone in the room who could provide them White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, an unexpected audience member in the crowded hearing room. "I'd like to see Mr. Ruff called up here right now," Glenn said.
After all the other senators had spoken, Thompson rebuffed Glenn's demand. "This is not a cocktail lounge where you can wander in and tell your story to the bartender," he said. "Usually, the minions are sent up here to spread the propaganda. He'll be back, but not today."
Meanwhile, just outside the hearing room, White House operatives mounted a vigorous defense of the delay in delivering the videotapes. They released an April memorandum from Ruff directing White House office heads, including the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), to search their records for documents relating to fund-raising activities, including any "referring or relating to White House political coffees."
A week later, according to another document released by the White House, Alan P. Sullivan, director of the White House Military Office that oversees the WHCA film and audio crews who recorded the coffees, replied that their search had turned up only six documents, none of which involved the coffees.
According to White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis, WHCA apparently searched only for individuals, companies and organizations that were listed in the Ruff memo and did not until recently search for the word "coffees" in its database of videotapes. "Nobody could possibly suggest that we did this deliberately so that we could have all this," Davis said.
"Not in any way was this an incident in which this White House attempted to slow down the process," Ruff added at an impromptu news conference.
Virtually lost in the day's theatrics and heated rhetoric was the much-anticipated testimony of Ickes, described by one GOP staff aide as "the eye of the hurricane" of Democratic fund-raising for the 1996 campaign. Appearing fiercely loyal to Clinton despite being denied the job of White House chief of staff in the second term, he told the committee that "one could fairly conclude that for some, the primary purpose of these hearings is to tarnish the Democratic Party in general, and President Clinton, and more pointedly, Vice President Gore."
Ickes said he could "state categorically that I know of no violation of law or inappropriate action by the president or vice president" or the staffs of the White House, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. He also argued that the Clinton White House political operation, with its close ties to the DNC and the reelection committee, was modeled on the Reagan and Bush White House political operations.
It was clear from the beginning of yesterday's hearing that Thompson, angered by the tardy delivery of the White House videotapes, intended to keep the focus on Clinton's fund-raising activities. He charged that "it is clear that there was an unprecedented and systematic effort to bring in illegal money into the Democratic National Committee, into the Clinton-Gore campaign, much of it foreign money, much of it by people who had free and ready access to the White House."
Asserting that Gore "should not be bearing the entire brunt of this mess," Thompson added: "Mr. President, I suggest this is your campaign. These were your supporters. These were your friends. These are your people who worked in the White House. Much of this money that was raised, illegal money, was for your campaign and for your reelection. This is your White House. This is your Department of Justice, and these are your tapes. And you have a responsibility."
Thompson said Clinton should call for an independent counsel to investigate 1996 campaign fund-raising, thus extracting Reno from "this position where her own reputation is in jeopardy."
Other committee Republicans, however, expressed no sympathy for Reno, who last week rejected a House GOP request to immediately seek an independent counsel to investigate a variety of campaign finance allegations made by Republicans. Reno has, however, set in motion a process that could lead to an independent counsel to investigate Gore's fund-raising phone calls and will decide next week whether to initiate a similar process regarding possible calls by Clinton.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said that Reno "was not telling the truth" when she said she was conducting an exhaustive investigation of fund-raising practices and that Clinton "should relieve her of her duties."
"I think we have to act to find a new attorney general and we can't look to the White House," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "The common law recourse is to go to the courts."
Committee Democrats rushed to Reno's defense. "I have seen nothing in this woman's life and record that she has done anything in this matter for political purposes," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). "It just doesn't fit. This is not an attorney general who would be involved in a coverup."
Republicans, said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), "have made it almost impossible for her to appoint an independent counsel. If she names an independent counsel, it's going to appear she was intimidated. If she doesn't, she's defending the president."
Late yesterday, Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg issued a statement in response to the GOP criticism of Reno. "Political bullying is not going to work on this attorney general," he said. "Fortunately, when it comes to applying the law, cooler heads will prevail."
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