Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 11 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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Morning Hearings
       The skirmishing got more intense today. John Glenn, whose newfound partisan vigor has been a surprise to everyone, opened by excoriating the Republicans for leaks to the press of pages from Richard Sullivan's deposition. Depositions are supposed to be kept secret, and the leaks were obviously from Thompson's team. "Mr. Chairman, at the outset of this investigation you said in the strongest possible terms that members of this committee staff who violate the official protocol would be subject to immediate dismissal," Glenn veritably thundered. "I call on you to get to the bottom of yesterday's sorry events and punish those who have compromised and dishonored this investigation and this institution."
       Thompson, who has so far been a model of good-natured equanimity as chairman, registered Glenn's point, but deflected it by telling him to be realistic. There are always press leaks in hearings like this one, he said. Thompson quoted Sam Ervin as saying the leaks of depositions were "a problem that could not be remedied." When Glenn came back at him a second time, Thompson raised a complaint of his own, that Glenn had sandbagged him Tuesday morning by telling him about John Huang's willingness to testify just 15 minutes before the hearings started. That violated an agreement that both sides would notify each other about significant developments. Thompson charged that Minority Counsel Alan Baron even asked Huang's lawyer not to tell Republicans anything about the deal.
       With all of that left unresolved, it was back to witness Sullivan, who was more recalcitrant and more combative than he was yesterday. Under close questioning from Thompson, Sullivan declined to repeat what he appears to have said in his deposition about his worries that Huang might not know the rules about foreign money. Sullivan maintained, unconvincingly, that he was merely concerned because Huang was inexperienced at fund raising. This was the pattern throughout the morning. Susan Collins tried to get Sullivan to admit that the effort to get Huang hired was unusual. Pete Domenici tried again for an acknowledgment that the White House coffees were fund-raisers. Sullivan wouldn't 'fess to either of these obvious points. The harder the Republicans squeezed, the less they got out of him.
       Joseph Lieberman got results that were no better when he pursued the important question of why the DNC had dropped its procedures for vetting large contributions in 1994. If it can be established that the DNC quit checking its checks to help raise more money, it will mean that the influx of tainted money was the product of intentional Democratic negligence, not just a fluke. Sullivan, however, was singularly unenlightening on this subject. He said that he had no idea why the vetting was dropped, but that he knew it wasn't done purposefully, and that he didn't question the integrity of anyone at the DNC.
       The morning's only news was announced by Susan Collins, who said that a $325,000 contribution from Yogesh Gandhi had been linked to a wire transfer from a Japanese bank a few days before. Collins dropped this rather awkwardly, as a rhetorical question to the witness. She asked Sullivan if he was surprised by this information. Sullivan pondered, and allowed that he was.
       In the unintentional comedy department, Sam Brownback of Kansas prodded Sullivan about an arrangement under which Huang was to have been paid a bonus if he hit his fund-raising goals. He wanted Sullivan to say this was unusual, which of course Sullivan would not say. "No raise money, no get bonus," Brownback said, paraphrasing Charlie Chan paraphrasing Confucius. Luckily, Sen. Akaka was not in the room at the time.

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Afternoon Hearings
       In the afternoon session, we learned, among other things, that:

  • Johnny Chung's $50,000 contribution to the DNC, which got his Chinese arms-merchant pals into a Clinton radio address, followed closely on the heels of a $150,000 wire transfer into Chung's account from the Bank of China.
  • Al Gore's advisers, though not necessarily Al Gore, had a pretty good idea that the notorious Buddhist Temple "event" was in fact a fund-raiser.
  • There was a good deal more explicit discussion of the use of White House "perks" to reward big contributors than was previously known.

        It's not that these revelations aren't significant. They are. The problem is that they don't cohere. The first item suggests Thompson building a case about Chinese espionage, the second a scandal about the vice president skirting the law, and the third an argument that the president set a new standard for tackiness in fund raising. Of course, all of these may be genuine concerns, and Thompson shouldn't have to choose. But if he wants to hold anyone's attention, he will have to find some way to weave the various plot strands together. At the close of the first week of hearings, he was far from doing that. The Republican members of his committee spent the day avidly chiseling away at a giant block of marble, but none seemed to have any idea what the finished sculpture was supposed to look like.
       At times, they seemed to have even less perspective than that. The week's hypocrisy award goes to Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who has been the most strident in his indignation that official property was used for fund-raising purposes by the Clinton campaign. Nickles gets so excited about this that he tends to stumble over names in a weird Spooneristic fashion, pronouncing James Riady as Ra-idy and Ira Magaziner as Maga-nizer. But Nickles himself was vending the same kinds of perks a few years ago, when he chaired the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Democrats released a 1990 letter from Nickles to members of the Republican Senatorial "Inner Circle," offering a chance to attend a reception on the lawn of what was then Dan Quayle's vice-presidential mansion in exchange for a $10,000 contribution. "Truly, no other organization offers you the opportunity to meet the Vice President and his wife at their home, participate in closed-door briefings with national and international figures, and then top the evening off by joining a Senator, Cabinet member or U.S. Senate candidate for a private dinner," Nickles wrote.
       The day ended with more senatorial bickering. Picking up his theme from the morning, John Glenn brought up the press leaks again, and allowed his chief counsel, Alan Baron, to defend himself from the charge that he had tried to keep his Republican counterpart, Michael Madigan, in the dark about John Huang's offer to testify. Baron said, fairly convincingly, that this accusation wasn't true. Thompson then responded by citing committee rules that suggest it is actually OK to disclose depositions once they have been discussed in open hearings. In the new spirit of openness, he released the full text of Richard Sullivan's 600-page deposition. Unfortunately, legalized leaking will never work. It takes all the fun out of it.

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