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Fizzled Inquiry Leaves Indelible Images of Excess (Nov. 1)

Fund-Raising Hearings Suspended

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 1997; Page A01

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's investigation of campaign financing abuses effectively ended yesterday.

Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) announced he was suspending public hearings and acknowledged that he cannot persuade the Senate to eliminate the Dec. 31 deadline it set for the committee to complete its work.

After 32 days of hearings and an expenditure of $2.6 million, Thompson stopped short of announcing a formal end to the investigation, which grew out of the widely perceived fund-raising excesses of the 1996 campaign. He said that, if necessary, he will call the committee back for additional hearings before the cutoff date.

But he acknowledged that, at this stage, the committee did not have "the caliber of witnesses and information" to justify a continuation of public hearings. "I'm not going to have hearings for the sake of hearings," Thompson said.

The effective end of the Senate investigation left the campaign financing field open to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee headed by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). The House panel, which has no deadline before the end of the 105th Congress next year, is scheduled to resume public hearings late next week.

At the White House yesterday, reaction among President Clinton's aides was mixed. One administration official said the Thompson committee's focus on the president's reelection campaign had produced embarrassments for Clinton, but no evidence of illegality. But the White House is still facing serious legal and political problems from a Justice Department inquiry and the House panel. "Monday is another day," said one White House aide.

Thompson did his best to portray his committee's work in a positive light, predicting that it will lead to the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising practices, including Clinton's and Vice President Gore's fund-raising roles, and the enactment next year of legislation to overhaul the campaign financing system.

Without such legislation, Thompson warned, the excesses of 1996 will look "minuscule" by the 2000 presidential election.

Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the committee's ranking Democrat, said that only a "major development" would lead to any more Senate hearings and that he doubted that would occur. "I think we have developed about as much information as we're going to develop," he said.

To the very end, Thompson and Glenn reflected the deep partisan division within the committee. Thompson complained about lack of cooperation from the Democrats, saying that much of the panel's time was consumed by their attempts at "defending [and] explaining away" Democratic fund-raising improprieties. But to Glenn, the main failure of the hearings was that they began on "such a political note" and continued as an exercise to "get Democrats."

Glenn was also less optimistic than Thompson about the prospects for passage of campaign finance reform legislation next year, noting that "the same cast of characters is going to be coming back to town so we won't have enough to break a filibuster unless some change their votes."

"The main thing is if we can get campaign finance reform next spring," when the Senate has scheduled another attempt to break the filibuster mounted by the legislation's opponents, Glenn added. "Maybe the hearings added something to that, but I think they could have been a lot more productive and I'm glad to see them winding down."

Earlier this week, Thompson formally asked Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has signaled his displeasure with Thompson's conduct of the hearings, to schedule a full Senate vote on lifting the Dec. 31 deadline. But Thompson also said that he doubted there was sufficient support to win an extension of the investigation. "I can count," he said yesterday.

Thompson complained often about the deadline, asserting that it encouraged delaying tactics by the White House and others who were simply waiting for time to run out on the probe. He said yesterday that the defiance of committee subpoenas by some groups involved in the 1996 campaign set a "bad precedent" and that the solution was to not set deadlines for congressional investigations.

Thompson also gave the committee partial credit for "encouraging" Attorney General Janet Reno to "shake things up" at the Justice Department and for stimulating the department to open preliminary inquiries into the fund-raising or related activities of Clinton, Gore, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former energy secretary Hazel R. O'Leary.

Thompson began the hearing process last July by announcing that it would examine "a plan" by the Chinese government to undermine the U.S. election system through the use of illegal, foreign campaign contributions. That aspect of the probe never got off the ground, in part because so many key witnesses fled the country or threatened to invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

But Thompson yesterday reiterated his original charge. "We know that there was a plan and it involved high levels of the Chinese government to affect our electoral process," he said.

Thompson was the chief Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s, an experience that at times seemed to haunt him in this investigation. He said the high drama of the Watergate hearings "raised the bar" for judging all congressional investigations.

He also said that he thought it was a mistake to think in terms of a "smoking gun," a phrase that stems from the Watergate Committee's most dramatic discovery, the existence of the White House taping system of President Richard M. Nixon.

Critiquing the public aspects of an investigation that Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), a committee member, said was "without a central focus," Thompson implicitly contrasted it with the often riveting, televised proceedings of the Watergate Committee that led to the resignation of a president.

"We have seen a lot of troubling stories, often disjointed stories," he said. "There is no central story line. It is a series of either scandals or mini-scandals, some interconnected, some not."

Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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