Lawyers Joust Over Handling of Files, TapesBy Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 1997; Page A10
It was lawyers day at the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday as the panel, with only a handful of its members present, listened to a clash of opinions about how well the White House has responded to requests for documents and other material dealing with campaign financing abuses during the 1996 election cycle.
The main protagonists were Michael J. Madigan, chief Republican counsel for the committee, and White House special counsel Lanny A. Breuer, who went at each other in the edgy tones of experienced litigators.
But after several hours of testimony by Breuer, White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and associate White House counsel Michael X. Imbroscio, neither side in the partisan clash had budged from its long-standing position.
Yesterday's session was a vivid example of how, in recent days, the committee has veered away from investigating specific allegations of campaign financing improprieties to devote its attention to the process of the investigation itself.
Committee Republicans have stopped short of accusing the White House of a "coverup," but they are clearly frustrated by what Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) has characterized as a pattern of delay and obstruction in producing information.
The panel of White House lawyers replied, as they have in the past, that they have produced all the information requested as soon as possible. "I don't believe it's fair to suggest that we have withheld some treasure trove of information," Ruff said.
Thompson set the tone for yesterday's hearing by asserting that "information comes out in dribs and drabs" and that "it appears on some occasions we may have been misled."
"It looks like an attempt to have it both ways of not being in the awkward position of asserting executive privilege, but still not turning over the information," he said.
Yesterday was the second day that the panel devoted largely to the delayed production of videotapes of controversial coffees that President Clinton hosted for wealthy donors at the White House. But the tapes themselves, first included in an overall request for information in April and which the White House says were not discovered until early this month, appear to contain little that is useful to the investigation.
"What is implied by the [GOP] line of questioning is that there was some kind of conspiracy here," said Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the committee's ranking Democrat. "For that to be believable it's logical that there must be something worth a conspiracy to cover up. I thought there would be some real bombs [in the videotapes]. What we saw is something that has been going on for a long time."
Questioned sharply by Madigan, Breuer repeated that the delay in producing the videotapes was the result of a "routine mixup" involving the loss of one page of a memo from Ruff directing the White House Communications Agency, which produces the videotapes, to search for material requested by the committee.
The committee began yesterday's hearing with cordial questioning of Richard Jenrette, chairman of Equitable Life Insurance Co. and a major Democratic donor who has also contributed to Republican candidates. Speaking in the softly lyrical drawl of his native North Carolina, Jenrette punctuated his testimony about fund-raising calls he received from Clinton and Vice President Gore with frequent disarming and humorous observations.
According to Jenrette, Clinton called him on Oct. 18, 1994, telling him he hoped to raise $2 million from "40 friends" for a last-minute blitz before that year's congressional elections. Two days later, Jenrette and his companies contributed $50,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
He said that Gore called looking for money in February 1996, that they had a "fairly brief" conversation and that Gore "seemed to be a man of fewer words than the president."
Jenrette said he did not feel pressured by Clinton and that "no Lincoln Bedroom [overnight stay] was offered." Asked by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) whether it wasn't more difficult to say no to the president than a party official, he replied, "That's true, but in fairness it's hard to say no to a senator."
Jenrette's testimony also illustrated some of the narrow questions that the investigation has come to focus on such as where Clinton was when he placed the fund-raising call. Jenrette said he didn't know, but White House officials later privately showed Republican committee aides billing records that they said proved the call was placed from the White House's residential quarters.
This is important only because if the call were placed from a White House office it might be interpreted as a violation of a 19th century law prohibiting solicitation of political contributions on government property.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post