Sen. Thompson's Opening Statement 17:56 min Vxtreme streaming video
Sen. Glenn's Opening Statement 27:53 min Vxtreme streaming video
Huang May Testify At Fund-Raising Hearings
Thompson, Glenn open Senate finance probe, asserting their commitment to a bipartisan investigation
By R. Morris Barrett/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (July 8) -- Twin revelations dominated the opening day of the Senate's campaign fund-raising hearings as former Democratic money man John Huang made a bid to testify, if he gets limited immunity, and Sen. Fred Thompson pointed to proof of a Chinese government plan to influence U.S. elections with illegal cash.
Both items added drama to today's initial session, as Huang's testimony had not been expected, and as the allegations concerning China are viewed as perhaps the most serious matter facing the committee.
"The committee believes that high-level Chinese governmental officials crafted a plan to increase China's influence over the U.S. political process," Thompson said in preliminary remarks that preceded his opening statement.
"The committee has identified specific steps taken in furtherance of the plan. Implementation of the plan has been handled by Chinese government officials and individuals enlisted to assist in the effort," he said.
Huang, at the center of the controversy after $1.6 million of funds he raised were linked to improper sources, was not expected to testify after he invoked his Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. But today, John Glenn of Ohio, the committee's ranking Democrat, disclosed that Huang's attorney had indicated his client would agree to testify with limited immunity from U.S. campaign laws like the Hatch Act, though not from laws against espionage or perjury.
Stressing he hadn't made up his mind whether the committee should grant Huang's request, Glenn said the offer might be "a very unique and inexpensive opportunity to inform ourselves and the American people about an issue that has been of serious concern to all of us."
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers mulled over the Huang question. Thompson wondered if legally it is possible to grant immunity on a limited basis -- "that you either have immunity or you don't." Sen. Arlen Specter noted that espionage is punishable by "a life sentence and in some cases it could carry the death penalty."
Glenn urged caution on discussions of Huang as a possible spy.
"On this issue the committee should go just as far as the facts take us, recognizing that the FBI is in a much better position than a congressional committee to do an espionage investigation," the former astronaut said. "It has to be careful, however, not to jump to conclusions that treason has been committed based on a partial story with ambiguous information."
"But wherever the trail leads, let's look at it," he said. Both Thompson and Glenn today asserted a desire to make the facts, not politics, the paramount concern.
Speaking in dispassionate, measured tones, Thompson said the probe would have two foci: first, which laws may have been broken, and second, how the laws should be reformed. But he said was impossible to do the latter before the former.
"The allegations are extremely serious," Thompson said, noting they include illegal foreign contributions, money laundering, violations of U.S. campaign laws, influence peddling and improper use of government facilities, including the White House.
"There apparently was a systematic influx of illegal money in our presidential race last year," he said. "We will be wanting to know: Who knew about it? Who should have known about it? And was there an attempt to cover it up?"
Noting the controversy had increased Americans' cynicism about politicians and their government, Glenn contended the committee's work could only be viewed as a success if it leads to campaign finance reform.
"In the eyes of most people the timbers of our political structure have developed a rot and must be dealt with or it can spread to dangerous proportions, adding to distrust and cynicism and doubt to those who won't participate or they join protest groups with varying motivation," the Ohio Democrat said.
But, he warned, "the abuses have been bipartisan and our investigation must be bipartisan."
Unlike Thompson, who spoke only in general terms, Glenn went into specific detail of allegations that former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour orchestrated and then covered up a plan to funnel more than $1 million in Hong Kong money through a GOP think tank to the RNC, an effort he said helped the GOP win control of Congress.
"This story, as far as I know right now, is the only one so far, where the head of a national political party knowingly and successfully solicited foreign money, infused it into the election process, and intentionally tried to cover it up," Glenn said.
Following Thompson and Glenn, members of the panel were allocated ten minutes apiece, alternating between Republicans and Democrats. GOP members, for the most part, stressed the need to identify where laws were broken, while Democrats stressed that fund-raising abuses were committed by both parties. And, Democrats said, the hearings must result in campaign finance reform.
"I begin this hearing by simply suggesting to my colleagues, this is problem that we Americans in some measure brought upon ourselves," declared New Jersey Democrat Robert Torricelli. "The American campaign finance system has been an accident waiting to happen."
GOP Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma reviewed many of the revelations concerning White House coffees and the numerous meetings President Bill Clinton had with Asian business executives that have come to light.
"A lot of the major players are fleeing," Nickles noted. "That is not cooperation, that is a mass exodus in hopes that maybe this hearing will blow over at the end of the year."
Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who served as minority counsel on the Senate Watergate committee over 20 years ago, controls the agenda of the Senate probe, and hearings this month are likely to focus mostly on the Democrats. The sessions will run Tuesdays through Thursdays.
There is still much speculation about who will testify. Many key witnesses have either taken the Fifth Amendment or left the country. Asked on Sunday if he would call the president or Vice President Al Gore, Thompson was noncommittal.
Still, while noting these problems, Thompson said there were various ways at getting to the truth and "we have much evidence available to us." And he warned that "if anyone should unlawfully impede or misinform this committee, there are criminal sanctions available."
Today's sessions were reserved for senators' opening statements. The first witness on Wednesday is expected to be the DNC's former finance director, Richard Sullivan. Also expected to testify are former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, presidential advisor Bruce Lindsey, and the first lady's chief of staff, Margaret Williams.
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