A House committee voted unanimously yesterday to grant former Commerce Department official John Huang immunity to testify publicly about the 1996 campaign finance scandals.
Huang, who helped raise $2 million for the Democratic National Committee during President Clinton's 1996 reelection effort, has long been considered a key witness who some believed could map an illicit fund-raising connection from Beijing to the Oval Office.
But if House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton's preview of Huang's extensive statements to the FBI is any guide, the most serious allegations against the White House may not be borne out by Huang's long-awaited testimony.
The two allegations from Huang that Burton (R-Ind.) highlighted involved a 1995 congressional race, not the presidential campaign, and new details about fund-raising efforts by Indonesian businessman James Riady.
Democrats on the committee supported the grant of immunity, but the ranking minority member, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), criticized Burton for not acknowledging that the FBI reports on Huang contain "significant exculpatory materials" and don't live up to Republican expectations.
"For the last three years, the chairman and others have repeatedly alleged that John Huang was at the center of a Chinese plot to influence the 1996 elections," Waxman said. "There have even been allegations that he was a Chinese spy who abused his security clearance to send classified information to China, and that he would have key incriminating information about the president and vice president."
Huang is slated to be questioned by the committee in hearings during the mid-November recess, which may be delayed by unresolved budget issues. FBI reports on Huang will be released early next week.
Huang's FBI testimony did offer more details about Huang and Riady's arrangements to funnel money to the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1992.
According to Burton, Huang told the FBI that Riady promised then-Gov. Bill Clinton, during a Los Angeles limousine ride in August 1992, to raise $1 million for his presidential campaign. Ultimately, Riady and Huang funneled approximately $700,000 from Indonesia through Riady's employees and subsidiaries at his conglomerate, the Lippo Group, to the Democratic National Committee. Campaign contributions from foreign entities are illegal, as are conduit contributions in which the source of the money donated is misrepresented.
"The Justice Department has had this information for most of the year," Burton said. "Why hasn't James Riady been indicted? It's certainly not for lack of evidence. You have clear testimony that James Riady was organizing conduit contributions."
Burton also said Huang related that in 1995 then-White House aide Harold Ickes asked Huang to raise money for the House campaign of Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) in possible violation of the Hatch Act, which makes it illegal for a government supervisor to ask a subordinate to make campaign donations. "The fact that Janet Reno knew about this allegation and still didn't appoint an independent counsel is very disturbing," Burton said.
Attorney General Reno said yesterday she would examine any new information about campaign fund-raising uncovered by Congress, including the allegations involving Ickes. "I just heard about it in the paper this morning," Reno said during her weekly news briefing. "We're going to review it to see if there is any new information that would add any light."
Congressional Republicans have been highly critical of Reno for not seeking appointment of an independent counsel to investigate campaign fund-raising by the White House, including Ickes, who is now working on first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's New York Senate race.
Also yesterday, the Justice Department recommended that Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, a Clinton fund-raiser, receive three years' probation rather than a prison term because of his cooperation in the department's ongoing campaign finance probe.