Senate Committee Grants Immunity To Nuns
Rebuffing Justice Department, handful of Democrats join Republicans in granting immunity to Buddhist nuns
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, July 23) -- In a surprise turn, Democrats joined Republicans on the Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising to grant immunity Wednesday to five prospective witnesses. Following the vote, senators began probing allegations of a foreign money trail to GOP coffers.
As the third week of hearings got underway, senators ripped the Justice Department and then, over the department's objections, voted to grant immunity for five lower-level witnesses.
Four of the witnesses are nuns associated with the controversial April 1996 Hsi Lai Temple fund-raiser attended by Vice President Al Gore. The fifth is a Virginia government employee, Keshi Zhan, who made campaign contributions which appeared to be beyond her means.
On the four nuns, the immunity vote was 15-1, with Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) casting the lone nay. On the fifth witness, the vote was 13-3, with Democratic Sens. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Richard Durbin of Illinois joining Lieberman in voting no.
The Republicans needed at least two of the Democrats to vote in favor for passage. The committee agreed to reconsider the immunity requests if Justice provides additional information within 30 days.
Leading off criticism of the Justice Department, Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) said he could not envision a greater conflict for the Justice Department than the temple event, which Thompson pointed out was a presidential fund-raiser attended by the vice president.
Democrats chimed in as well. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) said he felt Justice's dealings with the committee had been "less than thorough" and had "complicated the work of the committee." Durbin was similarly nonplussed with the department, saying it was "not in any way helpful."
After statements and a speedy vote, senators turned to the day's first witness, Benton Becker, a Florida lawyer who represents Hong Kong businessman Ambrous Tung Young. It was committee Democrats' first chance to take the offensive and pursue allegations that former Republican National Committee Haley Barbour laundered funds from overseas.
Young, who held joint Taiwanese-U.S. citizenship until 1994, gave $122,000 in donations to Republicans which were later returned to him, and provided a $2.1 million guarantee of a U.S. bank loan to the National Policy Forum, a GOP think tank chaired by Barbour.
Becker described how Young, through a Florida subsidiary of his Hong Kong company, had donated $100,000 in 1991 to become a member of the GOP's "Team 100." Then, in October 1994, Becker recounted, Young agreed to put up the $2.1 million loan for the forum, which defaulted on the loan this spring, giving Young an $800,000 loss.
Becker denied suggestions that Young had any intention of absorbing the loss as a favor to the GOP, noting that Young had considered legal action against NPF. Barbour, Becker noted, had assured Young that the RNC would repay the NPF loan, if necessary.
"There was no sham from Mr. Young's standpoint, from our standpoint," Becker said. "Mr. Young had every expectation of receiving all ... of his funds back plus interest. We had every expectation of the National Policy Forum making full payment."
At Democrats' prodding, Becker acknowledged Young was aware the funds would be used by the NPF to repay a loan to the RNC just before the 1994 mid-term elections.
"It does appear that you ... that this whole transaction was designed to pay back the RNC or an RNC-related entity," Thompson said.
"I would concur with that," Becker responded.
And Democrats noted that immediately after Young's funds cleared, the NPF repaid its $1.5 million debt to the RNC. Minority Counsel Alan Baron reviewed a series of exhibits to highlight the political impact of Young's loan. On Baron's bidding, Becker read from a previously reported letter in which Barbour thanked Young just after the elections.
"You're a champ. Many, many thanks," Becker read.
Democrats seized on the fact that although Young's funds had cleared Oct. 13, 1994, the RNC did not receive the funds until after Oct. 20, just after a Federal Election Commission disclosure report was due.
"There's no coincidence here, folks," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.
Appearing after Becker was former NPF president Mike Baroody, who resigned from the forum after 13 months, citing his disapproval of Barbour's fascination with raising overseas funds. Senators reviewed Baroody's resignation letter where he told Barbour, who chaired the forum, "I thought you were right about the possibility foreign money could be raised but thought it would be wrong to do so."
But today Baroody drew a sharp distinction between what he considered wrong and what he considered illegal.
Noting that organizations with 501(c)4 tax-exempt status, which the forum sought, were legally permitted to receive foreign contributions, Baroody said, "I stress to this committee, that our [Baroody's and Barbour's] disagreements were over prudential judgement, rather than matters of law." "I said it would be wrong -- meaning not right, inappropriate, unseemly and imprudent -- because I did not think an organization so inherently involved ... in America's political public policy processes should be funded with other than American money. I also believed that foreign funding would inevitably become public and controversial," he said.
A second major concern Baroody had was that the lines between the NPF and RNC were "not sharply enough drawn," which he worried might jeopardize the group's tax-exempt status.
But noting the NPF had been a consistent drain on RNC coffers, Baroody dismissed the allegation that the forum was a front for the RNC or was designed to launder money as "fiction."
Separately, the State Department wrote Rep. Gerald Solomon that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has urged China to help U.S. investigators find Charles Yah Lin Trie, a key figure in the fund-raising probe.
"We informed the Chinese government that this is a high priority in which Secretary Albright is personally interested," the department wrote Solomon, a Republican from New York.
Barbour is expected to testify before the committee on Thursday. The hearings reconvene at 10 a.m. EDT.
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