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'Girl Scout's' Honor

Friday, September 19 1997; Page A18

IF YOU want a working definition of what it means to stonewall, try the Roger Tamraz story. Mr. Tamraz himself makes no secret of what he was trying to do in 1995 and 1996, when he made large campaign contributions to the Democratic Party. He was trying to buy an audience with the president to make a pitch for his Central Asian pipeline project. "I did believe my contributions gave me access," he told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday. "Did you believe you would have been able to have the conversation with the president, however briefly, without having contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars?" he was asked. "Honestly, no," he answered.

But the various intermediaries through whom the pressure was then transmitted to get him a meeting can scarcely remember a thing they did in his behalf; they can only remember things they didn't do. The unblushing denials it continues to elicit are what make this story so striking, even more in their way than the details that are being denied.

Sheila Heslin, a former National Security Council aide, was the principal obstacle to the purchase of a piece of the president's time that Mr. Tamraz was seeking to arrange. Her sense was that he was a questionable character who should be kept at arm's length. It was she who thus became the target of the importuners, the various people fronting for Mr. Tamraz, until they gave up and simply went around her.

Ms. Heslin says that then Democratic National Committee Chairman Donald Fowler called her up at one point to tell her that a CIA official would shortly call to assuage her doubts by vouching for Mr. Tamraz. "I was shocked," Ms. Heslin testified. She says she called the CIA and asked officials, "What the hell is going on? Why are you guys – you know, why are your people working with Fowler," a party official beseeching an audience on behalf of a campaign contributor? Good question, for which there's still no answer. Mr. Fowler has testified he can't recall any contact with the CIA.

Ms. Heslin says, with contemporaneous notes to back her up, that she was also called by an Energy Department official who indicated he was interceding at the behest of presidential counselor and former White House chief of staff Thomas F. McLarty, that Mr. McLarty was interested in bringing about a meeting between the president and Mr. Tamraz and that Mr. Tamraz, who had already made a large donation to the party, would likely donate more if the meeting could be arranged. When she refused, "he told me I shouldn't be such a Girl Scout," she testified.

Even as she was testifying, the White House issued a statement in Mr. McLarty's name saying he had "requested only information" about Mr. Tamraz and denying having mentioned or even known about Mr. Tamraz's contributions, past or prospective. The Energy Department official has likewise denied that he sought to pressure Ms. Heslin, drew a connection between a meeting and campaign contributions or called Ms. Heslin a Girl Scout.

The White House keeps saying the problem with the fund-raising during the months in question was sloppy vetting by the DNC, as if the DNC was not itself an arm of the White House and the reelection campaign at the time. The lack of an adequate screening system was why so many suspect characters got in to see the president and were allowed to contribute to the campaign. That's the line.

But here there was a screen, and apparently a pretty tough one, in the person of Ms. Heslin. They ran right through her when they smelled the bucks. She herself observed, rather proudly, that no policy changed as a result of Mr. Tamraz's self-promotion, and the White House continues to say that the fund-raising efforts of the president, vice president and others broke no laws. That seems to us to be the least of it, the law being the piece of cheese it is. If policy and policymakers weren't bought in the last election, an awful lot of people wasted an awful lot of money. The issue is not so much whether the law was broken last time around; it's how to strengthen it.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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