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House GOP Casts a Wide Net In Renewed Scandal Hunt

By Jackie Koszczuk, CQ Staff Writer

In early November, just as a House subcommittee investigation into an alleged influence-buying scandal was getting under way, ranking Democrat Ron Klink got a friendly warning from the panel's Republican chairman.

Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton, with whom Klink had an amicable working relationship, sought Klink out on the floor to say that the investigation was "going to have political overtones," the Pennsylvania Democrat recalls Barton telling him.

Klink was unpleasantly surprised. He and Barton had come through earlier battles together -- over clean air regulations and the overhaul of the Food and Drug Administration -- in which they disagreed but managed to avoid debilitating partisanship. But the year-old fundraising controversy tends to bring out the worst in the two political parties, and bipartisanship is always the first casualty.

The House is set to open a new season of fundraising investigations this week, picking up where Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and his Governmental Affairs Committee left off. The House hearings have the potential to top last year's Senate round, if not in the production of new revelations, then in the abundance of political hardball and bitter wrangling between the parties.

Instead of one central investigation with a set cast of players, the House has unleashed at least 10 committees or subcommittees to look into different aspects of the scandal, some overlapping the work of others. Unlike Thompson, who sought a degree of evenhandedness, the more partisan House is looking almost exclusively at Democratic abuses, avoiding inquiries into questionable practices employed by Republicans to raise record-shattering amounts of money in 1996.

Republicans say the fact that many potential Senate witnesses fled the country or demanded legal immunity for their testimony justifies continuing the probe. And they see nothing sinister in the number of House panels doing the investigating. "You learn a little more from each committee," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "It isn't redundant. We're looking at the same issues but we're not asking the same questions."

Democrats have another view. "Clearly this is nothing more than a political witch hunt," Klink said.

Lessons Learned

While they plan an aggressive set of hearings, Republican leaders have been chastened by lessons learned from the Senate experience. After Thompson spent nearly a year and more than $2 million on an investigation that generated intense media interest but less than spectacular results, House Republicans are setting more modest goals and lowering expectations.

A prime example is the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, the main House panel mounting the fundraising investigations. Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., like Thompson, had originally said his investigation would expose influence buying by the Chinese government in the Clinton administration. Burton suggested in interviews early last year that the White House may have traded national security secrets for campaign contributions.

"If the allegations and information we have so far are proven to be accurate," Burton told ABC News last summer, "this will be one of the biggest scandals in the history of the United States. It would dwarf almost anything -- Teapot Dome, Watergate, anything."

But Republican predictions are much more subdued now. The four-month Thompson hearings failed to offer evidence of such a conspiracy, and Burton has dramatically narrowed his committee's mission.

Now, the focus is much closer to home. The panel is planning hearings looking at Democratic Party and White House officials who may have solicited donations from non-citizens. "It really gets down to what was being done domestically to seek and secure the funding," said committee spokesman Will Dwyer. "That's where there may have been dereliction of duty."

The Los Angeles Times in December published a front-page story that suggested that President Clinton at the least looked the other way while longtime associates conducted flagrantly illegal fundraising. Clinton failed to heed several warnings that large foreign contributions were filling his campaign coffers, the article said.

Burton plans hearings on the solicitation issue in February or March.

Before that, though, he plans to open the year with four hearings beginning Jan. 21 devoted to another issue already explored by the Thompson committee: Whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt improperly intervened in behalf of an Indian tribe that gave large contributions to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to stop a rival tribe from building a casino in Wisconsin that would have competed with the favored tribe's gambling operations.

While the hearings will be duplicative of the Senate's work, the House GOP hopes to use them to heighten pressure on Attorney General Janet Reno to recommend the appointment of an independent counsel in the Babbitt matter. The hearings on Babbitt and the casino issue, which many Republicans believe present the strongest case to date for the appointment of a special counsel, are timed to begin and end before Reno's decision, expected in mid-February. Babbitt is expected to be called to testify on Jan. 29.

Teamsters Investigation

Although Burton's committee will take the lead in the new season of hearings, another committee is generating more enthusiasm among Republicans. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and his Education and the Workforce Oversight Subcommittee will continue hearings on the Teamsters union fundraising scandal.

Hoekstra's committee is piggybacking on a federal grand jury investigation of the Teamsters, which has uncovered evidence that the DNC and other groups helped finance the campaign of union President Ron Carey in return for union contributions to Clinton's re-election campaign and donations to the groups.

Three former Carey aides have pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy and have implicated finance officials in the Clinton-Gore campaign. The aides also said that union money was funneled to several liberal organizations in exchange for donations from those groups to Carey, who was locked in a tight re-election contest in 1996 against challenger James P. Hoffa.

The investigation into the Teamsters holds many advantages for House Republicans. Where the issues raised in the broader investigations by Thompson and Burton have been difficult to prove, the contribution-swap scandal deals with a smaller universe of concrete allegations, many of which have been fleshed out in court documents.

"This isn't obscure legalese," Hoekstra said in a recent interview. "Some of these things are damning. Some of the legal documents read like a Tom Clancy novel, only much shorter. Anyone interested in good government can look at this stuff and see that it's clearly illegal."

The congressional probe also provides Republicans with a golden opportunity to build a case for some of their labor proposals, which the unions and Democrats adamantly oppose. For instance, the allegedly misused Teamsters money came from union dues, which paves the way for a renewed debate on GOP legislation requiring unions to get express permission from the rank and file to use dues for political contributions. The vast majority of labor contributions goes to Democratic candidates.

Hearings are set to resume in February, after an earlier round held by the subcommittee in October.

Several other House committees have investigations under way, looking at everything from alleged improper influence in the awarding of federal contracts to whether the House should begin impeachment proceedings against Clinton.

Barton, who chairs the Commerce Committee's oversight panel, plans to continue looking into contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign from businesses that received lucrative federal business and contracts.

The hearings will focus on whether contributions to the DNC from real estate developer Franklin L. Haney and lobbyist Peter Knight influenced an administration decision to move the Federal Communications Commission to new headquarters in the Portals office building in Washington. Haney is a co-owner of the Portals and a friend of Vice President Al Gore. Knight is a former Gore chief of staff.

Not surprisingly, Democrats predict that the flurry of House hearings will produce little beyond what the Senate probe was able to show.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member on the Government Reform committee and a leading critic of the Burton hearings, said, "They are willing to go from one thing to another just to see if they can hit some pay dirt. I try to approach these hearings with some sense that there may be something here worth paying attention to, but it's hard to take them seriously."

And criticism is beginning to emerge from less expected quarters. Some Republicans are worried that protracted hearings without substantive results will make them vulnerable to Democratic charges of using congressional oversight for partisan purposes.

"There are diminishing results with each passing day," said an aide to a prominent House conservative. "I don't know of anyone who wants to shut down the investigations yet, but there is more a feeling that it's time to put up or shut up."

Some Republican moderates are unhappy that the hearings seem destined to unfold without the leadership undertaking serious efforts to pass a campaign finance overhaul bill. Shays, a co-sponsor of a leading campaign finance bill and a member of the Burton committee, said, "I think Dan Burton is conducting the hearings very fairly, but the bottom line is, he is not an advocate of campaign finance reform."

Embarrassing the White House

For the time being, the House leadership is committed to allowing the investigations to continue.

Though the hearings may never fulfill the GOP's wildest dreams by finding Clinton's or Gore's fingerprints on the scandal, they at least may serve the secondary political purposes of embarrassing the administration and crippling the Democratic Party's fundraising heading into the midterm election in November.

"It does have the effect of making it harder for us to raise money to take the House back," Klink said. "There is a fog of innuendo that hangs over the party, and that makes things very difficult."

There is also little chance that the House leadership will follow the Senate's lead by consolidating the investigations into one or two committees. Several circumstances unique to the House have convinced Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., that a Watergate Committee-style approach would not work, according to top aides.

Creating a central investigation would likely heighten media coverage, but at the risk of the House suffering the same criticism that Thompson did in the Senate when his probe failed to meet original expectations.

Also, it is uncertain Gingrich could pull off a consolidation even if he wanted to. After a series of political setbacks weakened him in the 104th Congress, he opened this Congress promising the committees more autonomy.

"He more or less promised them independence," said Steven S. Smith, a University of Minnesota political scientist who has written extensively about congressional committees. "If they can't at least conduct their own oversight functions independently, that's a pretty hollow promise."

Gingrich and other House leaders also believe that keeping multiple fronts open may increase the chances of coming up with substantive proof of wrongdoing. The reasoning: If Burton's committee fails to produce convincing evidence of White House malfeasance, why not let some of the other committee chairmen have a run at it?

The leadership argues that the investigations cannot be called a fishing expedition because most have been based on charges raised in the media or, in the case of Hoekstra's probe, the obvious failure of federal overseers to keep the Teamsters election free of corruption.

"If we were manufacturing investigations, that would be a different story," said a Gingrich aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's all reactive to questions being raised elsewhere. It's regular order, more or less."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 17, 1998

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Criticism of 'Corporate Welfare' Heats Up in Congress
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