Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 12 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       It was pretty pointless today. The witness, who testified for a mere two hours before the senators were called away to a secret intelligence briefing, was the national security adviser, Sandy Berger. Republicans had a notion they could embarrass Berger because he posed in 1995 for a photograph with Eric Hotung, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman whose wife gave $99,980 to the Democratic National Committee.
       Given all that went on in the campaign, this has never looked like an especially egregious episode. The details that emerged in the hearing made it seem truly innocuous. The rotund Berger, who has a nicely forthright manner and a jaded, wisecracking way about him, made clear that he had no idea Hotung was a Democratic contributor or that DNC Chair Donald Fowler was helping him. Berger said Hotung was a "serious person" with deep knowledge of China who wasn't promoting any personal business interests. What's more, as Joseph Lieberman pointed out, passing along a bit of information from the White House, Hotung never even requested a copy of the Berger photograph for which he supposedly paid out the $99,980. The only truly suspicious thing about Hotung, which nobody mentioned, is that he didn't pay the additional $20 that would have qualified him to have dinner with the president.
       That well running dry, Republicans tried drilling Berger on the issue of Roger Tamraz, the oil pipeline dreamer who got into Clinton fund-raising events after the National Security Council advised the vice president not to meet with him. The problem here was that Berger quite convincingly maintained that he knew nothing at all about Tamraz until he read it in the paper. That satisfied everyone except the majority whip, Don Nickles, whose hot-headedness has been shading into hysteria the last couple of days. It's meat-locker cold in the air-conditioned hearing room, but Nickles, who always arrives just in time for his turn at the microphone, sits in his shirt sleeves, as if he were prosecuting a child killer in a sweltering Tulsa courtroom. He then spills out loaded questions in a jumble of mispronunciations and malapropisms, with no notion that they've already been asked and answered.
       Should the witness make the mistake of trying to answer one of these questions, Nickles sharply cuts him off. This tirade continues until someone complains. Yesterday, after Nickles had ranted on for more than double his allotted 10 minutes, Thompson chided him for keeping other senators waiting. Today, after Nickles ignored the bell again, John Glenn politely asked him to give someone else a chance. "I understand that you don't want me to pursue this," Nickles snorted. In fact, he was asking questions Berger clearly knew nothing about.
       Nickles' questions to Berger did, however, put into play some interesting new documents about the Tamraz affair. Despite being blackballed by the NSC in 1995, Tamraz managed to get himself into a dinner for $100,000 donors that the president attended on March 27, 1996, and into a White House coffee on April 1. At the dinner, Tamraz pitched his pipeline scheme to Clinton. This is clear from a March 28 memo sent to the president by White House Social Secretary Ann Stock. "Roger Tamraz--he wanted to discuss the pipeline that will go from the Caspian Sea to Turkey. You told him someone would follow up with him," Stock reminded Clinton. "He will be at the 4/1 breakfast."
       Clinton forwarded a copy of this memo to Mack McLarty, indicating that McLarty was the "someone" who should follow up on Tamraz's concerns. A few days later, McLarty sent a memo back to Clinton: "Per your direction, I had a good visit with Roger Tamraz. ... Roger was very pleased with your interest, and we will follow up in a supportive but prudent and appropriate way." The same day, McLarty wrote Kyle Simpson, a senior official at the Energy Department, sending on information about Tamraz's plan.
       Tamraz didn't succeed in buying the policy outcome he wanted--the U.S. government didn't come around to supporting his pipeline. But for $300,000, he got a good shot at making his case to the president and one of his top advisers, and may have been able to make officials at the Energy Department think he was someone they ought to pay attention to. If Tamraz didn't quite buy influence, he got more than mere "access" for his money. He bought consideration.
       A footnote: Yesterday I wrote that Al Gore's fund-raising calls don't raise any real question of criminality even if he was raising "hard" money, and hence don't necessitate an independent counsel to investigate. If an independent counsel is appointed nonetheless, perhaps he or she will also want to look into the fund-raising calls Ronald Reagan made from the Oval Office, which, according to a neglected AP story from Sept. 4, span the entire period of his presidency. The AP discovered documents at the Reagan Library in California which show that Reagan made calls directly to Republican fund-raising events, including one reception held at the Commerce Department. His voice was broadcast to the assembled donors by speakerphone. In one instance, Reagan promised the $10,000 donors, known as Republican "Eagles," that he would invite them all over to the White House soon. According to the documents, the calls were cleared in advance by the White House Counsel's office.

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