Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 1 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       The last day of the hearings began with expressions of camaraderie and nostalgia, as Chief Counsel Michael Madigan interviewed Terry Lenzner, the head of the investigative firm retained by the Clinton legal defense fund to look into the curious contributions passed along by Charlie Trie. In 1973, Madigan and Lenzner were lawyers on opposite sides of the Ervin Committee investigation. Apparently, they liked each other then, and still do. Madigan treated Lenzner as a friendly witness, whom he needed only to establish one point: that he was warned not to call Trie himself because Trie was a friend of the president's. When the committee broke for a vote, Madigan went over and sat next to Lenzner. It was all very chummy.
       But then, a more sensitive issue reared its head. Lenzner's agency does opposition research. And early this year, he was approached by a potential client, an Indian tribe that was trying to get back some of its historical territory in Oklahoma, which happens to be loaded with oil and natural gas. The Cheyenne-Arapaho Indians, who were sent to Lenzner by one Cody Shearer, a heavily connected friend of the president's, were interested in having him do opposition research on that state's Republican senator, Don Nickles, who opposed the land repatriation. In a memo, which was first disclosed on Monday by Newsweek, Lenzner proposed to investigate the financial holdings of Nickles and his family in order to find out if the oil and gas industry had rewarded him for this stand.
       For a committee witness to even challenge a senator is usually a bad idea. To offer to dig up dirt on his family is a definite no-no. The Thompson committee's designated hitter, Arlen Specter, took the lead in reminding Lenzner of this norm. Specter suggested that the point of the research was to blackmail Nickles into changing his position. Lenzner protested in vain that the research had never been performed. "Have you targeted any other member of this committee for investigation?" Specter barked. The Indians came to Lenzner with a tale of woe about how the DNC had promised to get their lands back in exchange for a contribution of $107,000, and then had not helped. Specter said this was a bribe, and that Lenzner had ignored evidence of a crime. He said he was going to report Lenzner to the authorities for this. Lenzner protested in vain that information about this alleged deal had already been reported in the papers by the time of his meeting.
       Nickles, who has rarely attended hearings in the last two weeks, was present, jacket off, rocking back and forth in his chair and drumming his fingers as Specter ripped the witness an additional posterior orifice. When Specter took a break, Nickles took charge of the stomping himself, asking Lenzner nasty questions then cutting him off before he could answer. Nickles brought up Nathan Landow, a Democratic fund-raiser who offered to represent the tribe in exchange for a contingency fee of 10 percent of repatriated land and mineral royalties. (Conspiracists please note: Michael Cardozo, the Clinton legal defense fund director who testified yesterday, is Landow's son-in-law.) Nickles accused Lenzner of trying to "shake down" an impoverished Indian tribe. "What would you do if you found something?" he shouted at the prisoner, I mean witness. "Intimidate me or bribe me or extort something? ... When you find this information out, what are you going to do with it?" Later, Nickles delivered the obligatory "I don't mind you messing with me but I do mind you messing with my wife" line.
       There was a certain shocked, shocked quality to the whole performance. Digging dirt for hire, which is what Lenzner does for a living, is pretty seamy, but it is hardly a novelty in politics. Most of the senators on the committee have probably hired out for opposition research on campaign opponents themselves. Lenzner was polite, but stood his ground. He said he had nothing to apologize for, and kept repeating that in his experience accusations that sounded off-the-wall were usually true. In other words, Nickles probably was a bought-and-paid-for shill for the oil and gas industry. Nickles is a down-the-line supporter of Oklahoma energy interests, and a major beneficiary of their generosity. His family company makes oil-field machinery.
       The afternoon's entertainment was to be a fuller picture of the quasi-Buddhist cult that provided the checks and money orders Trie delivered to the Clinton legal defense committee and that the committee hired Lenzner to investigate. Apparently Supreme Master Ching Hai, a Vietnamese-born woman with a penchant for the high life, felt that Bill Clinton was a "man of peace" and encouraged her disciples--with the help of a meditation technique that induced hyperventilation and caused them to become highly suggestible--to give the president some of their money. The Ching Hai initiates, who have been known to drink the master's bath water, did not refuse. I was looking forward to hearing the witness, Zhi Hua Dong, describe this and other cultic practices. But the Committee did not return after lunch; it spent the afternoon in private session discussing subpoenas well past my deadline of 4:30. Mr. Dong sat patiently at the witness table gazing at a picture of Mistress Ching Hai. Beneath the picture was the inscription: "The Key Influence to Enlightenment." The mistress sounds like a Buddhist version of Newt, but with a better ability to command loyalty in her followers.
       Barring a special session in August, that's it until September. Though it's easy to make fun, I don't agree with those who contend that they have been either a purely partisan exercise or a massive bore. (Though a powerful case is made by the wife of one of the committee lawyers, who sits in the front row of the visitors' section reading The Mill on the Floss.) To be sure, there have been some major gaps in the basic logic of the committee's work so far. We have yet to learn what Fred Thompson said we would learn--how the Chinese government tried to influence the presidential election. Indeed, it's still not clear which of the figures Thompson suspects was the link to Beijing. Was it John Huang, Johnny Chung, Charlie Trie, James Riady, Yogesh Gandhi, or Mr. Wu? Nor has Thompson shown that the Clinton re-election broke dramatically new ground in 1996.
       He has pretty clearly demonstrated, though, that it was both more aggressive and more negligent in its pursuit of money than any of its predecessors. It may not have been a difference in kind, but it was certainly a difference in degree. This whirling panoply of bipartisan, international sleaze does add up to something.
       Fred Thompson deserves provisional credit. Resisting every kind of obstacle and pressure, he has begun to draw a picture of how money functions in American politics today. At times the glimpses have been appalling and at times they have been merely absurd and cartoonish. But slowly, an image is emerging of a system in need of reform. There is reason to be hopeful that when Thompson is done filling in the blank spots on his canvas, the public will look upon it, recoil in democratic horror, and demand that it be changed.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.