Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 16 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       This morning Fred Thompson began what he was supposed to have been doing last week: telling a story about dirty money and the Democrats. The story he told was about John Huang, and how Huang channeled donations from his Indonesian-based employer, the Lippo Group, to the Clinton campaign in 1992.
       The bombshell of the day was not dropped by the first witness, a shy mouse of a woman named Juliana Utomo, but rather dropped on her. Utomo, who said she only recently learned what the initials DNC stood for, was the office manager for Hip Hing Holdings, a Lippo subsidiary based in Los Angeles. Work at Hip Hing does not seem to have been especially arduous. The company's only asset was a vacant lot, which was managed as a parking lot, bringing in some $32,000 a year in income. To pay its rather more considerable expenses (to businesses such as Little Rock Limousine Ltd.), Hip Hing would send wires to a Mrs. Eng in Jakarta to, in Utomo's words, "request funds for capital injection." These capital injections were substantial--about $500,000 in 1992. That included, among other office expenses, $50,000 requested by John Huang as reimbursement for a check he wrote to the Democratic National Committee.
       The memo in which Huang requests this repayment is a smoking gun of sorts. It is illegal to contribute foreign money to political parties, so case closed. But this revelation, which was reported by Newsweek on Monday, only begins to get the ball rolling. The illegal contribution happened during the 1992 election cycle, which isn't even part of the Thompson committee's official mandate. And Republicans are far from proving that a) Democrats knew the money was illegal; b) the Riadys got something in exchange for their money; c) the same thing happened in the 1996 election; or d) China had something to do with what Lippo and Huang were doing. But Thompson is clearly on the case, and the Democrats who were ridiculing him last week are now the ones on the defensive.
       Republicans spent the rest of the day less fruitfully, trying to paint an ominous picture of Lippo. The next witness was Thomas Hampson, a private investigator from Schaumburg, Ill., hired by the committee to look into Lippo's extensive connections to the People's Republic of China. Hampson, whose résumé lists memberships including the Association of Christian Investigators and the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, was pretty much of a joke. His gumshoe work, for which the committee paid him several thousand dollars, consisted of browsing in Lexis-Nexis and other online databases. He displayed his findings on an enormous handmade and totally illegible flowchart that purported to show Lippo's intermingling with the People's Republic of China. It looked like a seventh-grade science project gone badly wrong. Hampson's analysis of Lippo was also a bit crude. "The company is kind of like a smiling tiger," he said. "It looks friendly, but is very dangerous." Russians are bears, Chinese are dragons. Indonesians, it appears, are tigers. Democrats retorted that Pat Robertson, too, was connected to the Chinese government, and showed a big ugly blowup of him with arrows pointing to a Red Chinese flag.
       Hampson was followed by Harold Arthur, the elderly, infirm chairman of the board of the Lippo Bank of California. Arthur testified that he had an office across the hall from John Huang for 13 years, but had no idea what Huang did. He liked him, though, and thought the notion that Huang was a Chinese spy was "hogwash." Arthur said that he thought Huang was honest and that Mrs. Arthur thought him the most gentlemanly man she had ever met (even though their contact was limited to an annual office Christmas party). Republicans prodded, trying to get Arthur to say what he thought about Huang's several hundred suspicious calls to the Lippo offices after he left to go to the Commerce Department. Arthur said he had no idea what they were about, and complained that Republicans had cancelled the appearance of James Per Lee, another Lippo Bank executive, who had actually looked into the calls. Democrats suggested that the witness had been disinvited because his testimony would exculpate Huang. Republicans said that they were short on time, that Per Lee's investigation into the phone calls was unreliable, and that he knew less about Huang than Arthur did.
       Sen. Torricelli, though, was more than willing to speculate what Huang's calls to Lippo were about. They might have been to get phone messages from his former secretary from people in L.A. who were trying to track him down, or to arrange to have his mail forwarded. Torricelli said the calls were too short to have been about "serious business" anyway. He then declared that although Democrats hadn't been able to call any witnesses yet, Arthur, like other witnesses called by Republicans, was helping his side.
       This was quite a reach. Of course, it was not so much of a reach as Torricelli's opening statement, in which he spoke movingly about how he would "never forget the first hearing of the Senate I ever witnessed," the Estes Kefauver hearings into organized crime. Torricelli said that the hearings, which he remembered so vividly from his childhood, unfairly defamed all Italian-Americans. As the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call pointed out, the Kefauver hearings ended five days after Torricelli was born, in 1951. What a liar.

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