As Thompson Sputters, Burton Gets Rolling
Some are disappointed in Senate's hearings, yet they did shed some light
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Nov. 3) -- Tennessee Sen. Fed Thompson's campaign-finance hearings got off to such a promising start, with the chairman saying a Chinese plot to subvert elections had touched the presidential campaign.
But after 32 days of public hearings and $2.6 million spent, the Senate campaign-finance investigation has sputtered to a close with no bombshells dropped, no Chinese plot proved and no "scalps on the wall," as Thompson himself put it.
The Senate's public hearings are over, for now and probably for good. "We have recessed," said Thompson, "subject to the call of the chair."
Those looking for further digging into 1996's alleged campaign-finance excesses will have to turn now to Rep. Dan Burton's House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which continues its hearings later this week.
Thompson's probe suffered multiple handicaps, some of which Burton's investigation will share: Fund-raiser John Huang and others invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Key figures such as Charlie Trie and Pauline Kanchanalak fled the country. The White House was slow to produce critical tapes and documents.
The Senate's hearings provided no "smoking gun" and no witness such as Watergate's John Dean, who spilled out the full tale. Witnesses chose their words carefully and left Republicans with little to pounce on.
Thompson says the point of the hearings was the truth, not nailing people. "We should not measure ourselves by the scalps on the wall," he said. Thompson's determination to make the hearings relatively bipartisan strained his relations with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other Republicans.
Bipartisanship is a burden that Burton does not plan to bear. His mandate is to look at the Democratic Party and the Clinton-Gore campaign, and nothing else. Those taken aback by the backbiting between Democrats and Republicans that sometimes characterized the Senate's hearings should be positively shocked by the House's sessions; relations between Burton and ranking Democrat Henry Waxman are so strained that they communicate only in writing.
While Thompson never delivered evidence of a Chinese plot, his hearings succeeded, up to a point, in exposing a political money system out of control where high-level policymakers trade access for money.
In what will probably be one of the lasting vignettes from the Thompson probe, White House national security aide Sheila Heslin tried her best to keep a questionable oilman out of the White House. But he gave $300,000 and got in anyway.
"If they kicked me out the door," Roger Tamraz told the committee, "I would go through the window."
Many others got in, too. "Many of you have given generously," President Bill Clinton told supporters at a May 1996 White House event, "and I thank you for that."
A Chinese businessman known as "Mr. Wu" got in while giving $220,000 to Democrats, money witnesses said was laundered through his partner, Charlie Trie.
What impact on Al Gore?
The hearings damaged Bill Clinton very little. His ratings held steady.
But Vice President Al Gore is still reeling from testimony about his fund-raising calls, and about a controversial event at a Buddhist temple. It's not clear how long the campaign-finance mess will stick to him as he heads into 2000.
Where the hearings suggested money laundering and obstruction of justice, they also showed that money from Hong Kong was used to pay a debt to the Republican Party just before the 1994 mid-term elections. Former party chairman Haley Barbour insisted the transaction was legal, but a grand jury is investigating the matter.
Thompson said his staff would continue investigating until the Dec. 31 deadline, a cut-off he opposed from the start. "When it was imposed on us last year, I said it was a mistake," he said. "It has proven to be a mistake in many different respects."
Democrats are glad to see the end of hearings they have seen as one-sided. "I think we were down to the point where we weren't being very productive," said ranking Democrat John Glenn.
The hearings might already have produced more without the cut-off. With time running out many groups simply ignored the committee's subpoenas, from the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters Union to the Christian Coalition and Bob Dole's chief fund-raiser.
But unless new information develops -- and quickly -- the Thompson hearings are over.CNN's Brooks Jackson contributed to this report.
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Monday Nov. 3, 1997
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