Committee Subpoenas Prove Hard to EnforceBy Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 1997; Page A04
Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) likes to use a football metaphor to describe what he thinks has happened to his Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's investigation of campaign finance abuses. The opposition, he says repeatedly, is "trying to run out the clock" on the committee, which faces a Dec. 31 deadline to complete its investigation.
Thompson directs this criticism at the White House, which he has accused of engaging in a deliberate pattern of delay and obstruction in producing subpoenaed material, most recently videotapes of President Clinton greeting wealthy supporters at White House coffees.
But if White House officials are guilty of delaying the game, they are not alone. From the AFL-CIO and various liberal activist groups on the left to the Christian Coalition and the Republican National Committee on the right, this Senate investigation has encountered an unusual-some say unprecedented-amount of resistance to its demands for information.
The committee's response, according to lawyers for several groups and individuals who have raised objections to subpoenas seeking documents and testimony from witnesses, has been to walk away from any potential confrontation, leaving many of its demands unmet. And those resisting have been aided by the reluctance of at least two committee Republicans to enforce a subpoena against the AFL-CIO for fear that the same procedure would be used against other organizations more sympathetic to the GOP.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has signaled his dissatisfaction with Thompson's conduct of the investigation, addressed this issue yesterday when he was asked whether he favored extending the probe beyond a Dec. 31 deadline set by the Senate. He said he recently spoke with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a member of the panel, "about how do you deal with the fact that subpoenas have been ignored. Kind of hate to just leave that on the table and allow people just to disregard subpoenas from a congressional committee.
"I take that very seriously," Lott added. "But I want to know what the committee thinks. Are they willing to just say, 'Oh, well, gee, they didn't respond to subpoenas?' I think we need to look at that from sort of the pattern and precedent that it sets."
Near the apparent end of what has been a deeply partisan endeavor from the outset, it is perhaps not surprising that what the committee thinks is divided along party lines. Democrats have charged for months that subpoenas issued in April to eight conservative groups have been ignored or not fully complied with, and that the committee's Republican majority has refused to enforce the subpoenas.
"It's reached a situation where Senate subpoenas have become a joke in town," said James Jordan, spokesman for committee Democrats.
Thompson's reply has been that the AFL-CIO started the resistance and that other groups followed their example. "The longest standing noncompliance as far as depositions and documents are concerned has to do with the AFL-CIO," he said last week.
What Thompson has not disclosed until now was that the labor federation had two unlikely allies in fighting the Senate subpoena. According to Paul Clark, spokesman for committee Republicans, shortly after the AFL-CIO failed to meet a Sept. 8 deadline set by Thompson for production of documents, the panel's GOP members were polled on the possibility of initiating enforcement procedures and at least two balked.
"A couple of Republicans wouldn't support [enforcement] because it could be extended to others," including organizations firmly aligned with the GOP, Clark said. With Democrats certain to object to action against the AFL-CIO, or at least to demand similar action against the Christian Coalition and other conservative organizations, "it was recognized by the chairman that we would basically be spinning our wheels" to seek an enforcement vote in the committee.
Clark did not identify the two reluctant GOP senators, but their resistance appeared to weaken Thompson's argument that the main obstacle to enforcing the committee's subpoenas was the Dec. 31 deadline, which he says does not leave enough time to complete the civil enforcement process. Their defection would cost Republicans their voting edge on the Governmental Affairs Committee and even with an open-ended investigation, "it would have called for some serious work in the vineyards to pull those people in," Clark said.
Whether or not they were following the AFL-CIO's lead, as Thompson has charged, other groups have joined the resistance. Last month seven of them, ranging from the National Right to Life Committee to the Teamsters Union, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, raised many of the legal and constitutional objections to the committee's demands for information that were cited by the AFL-CIO.
"This was really a fishing expedition," said Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. "If it had gone to court, the Senate would have lost."
In any case, while many of the seven groups and others have supplied some documents and other material to the committee, there appears to have been little or no attempt to pursue the original scope of the subpoenas, which even some Republican lawyers say were overly broad and invited the kind of resistance they have met. "There hasn't been any follow-up by the committee with us," said a spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, one of the targeted groups.
Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore Law School professor and Democrat who has served as a legal counsel for both the House and the Senate, said the deadline the full Senate set for the committee "vastly weakens its power of enforcement," but that other factors were also working against the panel.
"It's the combination of a committee being weakened by being partisan, a committee that will be a lame duck in a few months and a series of overbroad subpoenas and sound First Amendment dissent by organizations" that so far have successfully resisted the panel's demands, he said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post