Panel Can't Crack Mystery of Memo's Missing PageBy Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 1997; Page A04
After weeks spent investigating foreign campaign contributions and other alleged illegal or improper activities during the 1996 campaign, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee turned its attention yesterday to a narrower question: What happened to the second page of Charles F.C. Ruff's memorandum to the White House Communications Agency (WHCA)?
With fewer than half its members present for a morning meeting, the committee never discovered what happened to the memo's second page, which included an order to produce material relating to the White House coffees that President Clinton hosted for campaign contributors.
Instead, the inconclusive session began with committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) suggesting that Ruff, the White House counsel, and his staff may be guilty of obstruction of justice, and ended with a shouting match between Thompson and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.).
The subject of yesterday's hearing was the White House's delayed production of videotapes recorded by WHCA camera crews. It quickly set off a sharp partisan exchange between Thompson, who accused the White House of engaging in an "unconscionable" delay in producing the tapes and other material, and Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the committee's ranking Democrat, who charged that Republicans have been equally guilty of delaying tactics.
Noting that the videotapes, included in a request for information to the White House last April, were not turned over until earlier this month, Thompson said: "There used to be things like obstruction of justice and things of that nature, where people would deliberately hold information back or set things up so that it certainly appears that it would be designed not to produce the relevant information. And that's apparently what we have here."
Outside the hearing room, White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis said Thompson's charge was "reckless." According to White House officials, because of internal errors that included the missing page of Ruff's memo, the existence of the videotapes was not discovered until Oct. 1.
Replying to Thompson, Glenn said that on Wednesday Republican National Committee officials told the Senate committee that Jo-Anne Coe, RNC deputy finance chairman, and Scott Reed, who managed former senator Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, would refuse to respond to subpoenas for depositions. The Washington Post reported yesterday that in the closing weeks of the 1996 campaign, Coe steered more than $1 million from major GOP donors to several tax-exempt organizations with close ties to the party.
"We have dug out that information bit by bit, piece by piece, over a period of time," Glenn said of the Republican dealings with conservative outside groups such as the National Right to Life Committee. "We now have a little bit of information. It took us six months to get it, and now they are telling us, 'We will not honor your subpoenas.'‚"
The RNC did not respond to a request for comment, but late yesterday Thompson released a letter from Dole offering to testify before the committee. Thompson said his staff will work to develop a formal invitation to Dole and Clinton.
Amid the charges and countercharges, Ruff's April 28 memo occupied most of the committee's time yesterday. The memo directed White House offices, including the White House Military Office that includes WHCA, to search all of their records for material being sought by congressional committees in connection with the investigation of campaign financing abuses during the 1996 campaign. The second page of the memo included a specific directive to produce "any documents or materials referring to White House political coffees."
But for reasons that remained unexplained, the second page of the memo never made it to Air Force Col. Charles Campbell, WHCA's deputy director, who initiated a search of the agency's records that did not include a reference to the coffees. Campbell speculated that the missing page may have inadvertently been mishandled in his office before the memo was put on his desk by an administrative aide.
It was not until months later, responding to new demands to produce WHCA videotapes, that White House associate counsel Michael X. Imbroscio discovered the coffee tapes in WHCA's database. Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles McGrath testified that Imbroscio was "surprised and shocked" to discover the videotapes.
"He said, 'Oh, expletive,'‚" McGrath said.
Under questioning by Levin, McGrath also said that "I know for a fact" that none of the videotapes had been altered before they were turned over to congressional committees and the Justice Department. In a television interview Sunday, House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) charged that the tapes may have been altered.
Levin also complained bitterly about the refusal of the committee's Republican majority to subpoena videotapes of White House political events under President George Bush, setting off a shouting match with Thompson.
"How many past administrations do you want to go through Bush, Reagan, Calvin Coolidge?" Thompson thundered. "This is a desperate attempt once again to shift the focus away from the question."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company