Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 17 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       We learned yesterday that employees at Hip Hing Holdings in Los Angeles do little more than keep an eye on a parking lot and wire Jakarta for more money when they run low. But at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., we discovered today, they're really unproductive.
       The goal of the Republicans was to continue making damning connections in a chronological narrative about John Huang. They tried to elicit testimony suggesting that Huang went to work at Commerce as an undercover agent, either for the Lippo Group, or for the government of China, or for both. Unfortunately for the prosecution, few of the points they tried to make survived close inspection. But the day was not completely wasted. The questioning of witnesses who worked with Huang painted a vivid picture of what it means to be a mid-level bureaucrat at a second-rate federal agency. At Commerce, it appears, a day's work consists of filling out inflated evaluations, attending forced diversity training, and coping with your feelings of inferiority toward other government departments while angling for trips abroad.
       The witness who summoned this vision most clearly was Jeffrey Garten, the former Undersecretary for International Trade at Commerce, and now Dean of the Yale School of Management. It was Garten's dream to make the Commerce Department the equal in competence to Treasury or State. His frustration was that he continued to be sent the kind of political hacks for which Commerce has always been a dumping ground. Exhibit A was John Huang, who was supposed to get the job of Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific International Trade Administration. Garten testified that he didn't want Huang to have anything to do with Asian trade policy--not because he suspected a conflict of interest, but because Huang was in way over his head. Garten changed Huang's title to Principal Deputy Assistant Undersecretary, and assigned him to do administrative laundry.
       With the honorable exception of Sen. Lieberman, Democrats on the committee played the part of Huang apologists with extraordinary vigor. At one point, Sen. Thompson erupted in frustration at Glenn, who continually announced that the Republicans had proved nothing. "I could make an effective prosecution case at the end of every witness," Thompson said, adding that he preferred to wait until more facts were in. Sen. Levin also frequently pushed his defense case too far. In one instance, Levin asked Garten about a personnel evaluation that awarded Huang 485 out of a score of 500. Levin wanted to show that some people at Commerce thought Huang was a competent employee. Garten, however, undercut Levin with a testy explanation that "reports on political employees are not worth the paper they're printed on." He added that Huang's superior Charles Meissner, who died in the Bosnia plane crash that killed Ron Brown, probably gave Huang a nice evaluation because "he felt sorry for him ... since I had so clearly eclipsed any role he could have."
       Huang's evaluation report is an inadvertently revealing document. Filled with solecisms and typos, it reads as if it were written by Huang himself--or perhaps by Sen. Brownback. "His guidance on many policy and program issues helped resolved problematic situation and achieved harmonious conclusion of issues," it reads. "He took steps to assists staff in improving their performance and patiently provided guidance to those who needed." This patience on Huang's part "earned him respect and administration among IEP [International Economic Policy] staff" [all sic]. Further down, under the "diversity" section, Huang is credited with frequently attending "mandatory training."
       The rest of the day's testimony was like a Ping-Pong match. Narrow, carefully tailored questions from Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Arlen Specter made it sound as if Huang's receiving an "interim security clearance," getting 37 briefings from the CIA, and visiting the Chinese Embassy were worrisome and out of the ordinary. But Democratic chief counsel Alan Baron's questions to John Dickerson, the CIA Commerce Department briefer, who testified melodramatically from behind an opaque glass screen, suggested an innocent explanation for everything. The "interim" clearances were nothing new or unusual, and Huang subsequently passed up an opportunity to upgrade his security clearance to the highest level because he didn't want to bother. (Huang did have what is called a DISCO, or Defense Industrial Security clearance, which may have enabled him to bypass the velvet rope at Limelight.) Dickerson explained that the person requesting the CIA briefings for Huang was not Huang himself, but Huang's boss Charles Meissner. Visits to the Chinese Embassy were part of Huang's job.
       Arlen Specter, who interviewed the CIA witnesses on behalf of the Republicans, was at his prickliest--which is pretty prickly. When John Glenn asked for a CIA document Specter was reading from, Specter grudgingly allowed it to be photocopied. When Glenn got the document, and wondered why it wasn't stamped top secret, Specter blew up at him, insisting that it was not "top secret" but merely "secret." Glenn said that he wanted to make sure secret documents weren't accidentally given to the press, or to staffers.
       "No one is suggesting that they be given to the press," Specter snapped. "You asked for them, and they've been given to you." Specter then became hugely testy toward the friendly witnesses from the CIA, after one of them pointed out that Specter was confusing mere "secret" documents with "top secret" ones himself. What a jerk.

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