Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 10 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       Richard Sullivan was touted ahead of time as a potential John Dean figure in the scandal. Republicans cast him as a well-meaning, clean-cut young fellow who fell in with a bad crowd at the Democratic National Committee, and who was ready to make a clean breast of things now to salve his conscience, or perhaps to save his ass. Sullivan was rumored to have given a strong deposition to the Thompson committee lawyers, describing the heavy political influence that got John Huang hired in the DNC fund-raising department and his own failed attempts to get others to worry about Huang running amok.
       Unfortunately for the Republicans, their gentlest coaxing couldn't draw their lead-off witness out of his shell. Whether because he was frightened by the bright lights, or because he didn't want to look like a rat fink, Sullivan went totally monosyllabic in front of the cameras. He didn't go back on his earlier testimony, but he did decline every opportunity to elaborate or provide texture. Most questions he answered with a lengthy pause followed by one of three words: "Yes," "No," or "Correct." Senators fell back on reading the juicier material in his deposition and asking him whether he still felt that way. This had zero dramatic effect.
       Only one Republican got frustrated enough to turn on the shy witness. Pete Domenici, who has so far been the most forceful of the Republicans, pressed Sullivan about the White House coffees, which are described in DNC documents as fund-raising events. Sullivan held to the legal fiction that these were events that were helpful to the DNC's fund-raising goals, but not actually "fund-raisers," despite the fact that almost all of them perfectly hit their $400,000 targets, based on a $50,000-per-cup contribution. Sullivan repeated that the coffees merely helped with "long-term goals." "For the first time since you've been here, you're spewing words calculated to confuse the issue," Domenici said.
       Most of the Democrats on the committee made it even clearer today than they did yesterday that they were present to play defense for the White House. John Glenn opened his questioning by asking Sullivan about the RNC, Haley Barbour and the National Policy Forum, and whether the Democrats had any similar arrangements. (Sullivan said the Democrats didn't.) Carl Levin of Michigan and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey were even more bluntly partisan, using their 10-minute allotments to describe various forms of Republican misbehavior that Sullivan knew nothing about. When Levin noted for a second time that the Bush campaign had used White House stationery for a fund-raising invitation in 1992, Thompson grew exasperated. "Levin, do you have anything from this campaign?" he asked.
       For the second day in a row, the most interesting senator to watch was Joseph Lieberman. Lieberman seems alone among the Democrats in thinking that what went on in the 1996 campaign was actually bad. Following up on Thompson's opening line of questioning, Lieberman honed in on a meeting Sullivan attended at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. Also at the meeting were DNC Chairman Don Fowler, John Huang, James Riady, and Joseph Giroir, a former law partner of Hillary Clinton's who was strenuously encouraging Fowler to hire Riady. Sullivan said that Riady made pointless small talk, asking if Fowler enjoyed his job and what his home state of South Carolina was like. Sullivan said he and Fowler came out of the meeting wondering, "What was that all about?" Evidently, it was about getting Huang a job working for Fowler at the DNC, but Riady's approach was so subtle as to be mystifying.
       Lieberman has also broken ranks with his fellow Democrats on the question of giving Huang immunity. At the end of the hearing, he declared himself to be extremely skeptical about whether doing so would justify the costs, in terms of forgoing a chance to bring to justice Huang, and perhaps others he might otherwise implicate. Lieberman's dissent prodded the Republicans to even greater skepticism. Thad Cochran of Mississippi said that he was frankly against granting Huang immunity, and other Republicans added that Huang would have to show them an incredibly strong "proffer"--a document that describes the testimony to be offered--in order to convince them to immunize him.
       Huang's lawyer and Thompson's lawyers are supposed to sit down at a secret location on Friday to negotiate, but it's hard to see how they could come to terms that would allow Huang to testify. The senators are demanding that Huang show them his hand before they decide whether they want to play cards with him. If they decide that what he is holding isn't good enough, there's no way for him to recall his confession--or to keep it out of the hands of those at the Justice Department who are working on an indictment against him. At the end of the hearing, Thompson tossed out what might be a more plausible way to flush Huang out. The committee could agree to not ask him about campaign law violations, if Huang volunteered to testify without immunity about whether he was a Chinese spy.
       The day's most damning revelation seemed to draw little notice. It was a May 1994 memo from DNC official Martha Phipps to a White House official named Ann Cahill. Don Nickles of Oklahoma questioned Sullivan about this memo to no effect, but the memo is damning on its face. In it, Phipps asks the White House for help "in order to reach our very aggressive goal of $40 million this year." She lists 19 perks, and names those in the White House who should help to coordinate selling them. These include not only the familiar invitations to White House sleepovers (perk No. 7), flights on Air Force One (No. 1), and photo opportunities with "the principles [sic]" (No. 10), but also "invitations to participate in official delegation trips abroad (Contact: Alexis Herman)" (No. 4). Other party favors mentioned are "better coordination on appointments to Boards & Commissions" (No. 5), phone time from the vice president (No. 12), and "Ability to reserve time on the White House tennis courts" (No. 18). There has been no inkling so far of how this translated into practice, or what the response was from the White House to the DNC. But that such a memo could even be written is the best evidence so far of the "everything for sale" spirit that seems to have prevailed from the inception of the Clinton re-election effort.
       The Phipps memo carries a certain whiff of nostalgia, recalling a time when "One lunch with Ira Magaziner per month" (No. 15) was deemed a valuable commodity. These days, most rich Democrats wouldn't pay much for such an opportunity. On the other hand, a few might pay handsomely to avoid it.
       Richard Sullivan returns tomorrow morning.

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