THE MONEY CHASE
March 5, 1998
Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses campaign finance with Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli. The Senate committe investigating the campaign finance abuses gathered to vote on the report of last year's investigation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now the final report from the Senate committee investigating campaign finance abuses in the 1996 elections. Kwame Holman begins our coverage.
KWAME HOLMAN: Members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee gathered late this afternoon to vote on the report of last year's investigation. That investigation often was characterized by heated partisan debates. Anyone hoping for that kind of partisan display today, however, was disappointed.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON, Chairman, Governmental Affairs Committee: We could revisit all of those old wounds and heartaches and throw some more stones at each other today if we choose to do so. We've got time to do that if members feel compelled in that direction.
KWAME HOLMAN: But none of the members was, even though there were major disagreements among them.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: I'm hopeful that now we can put these, both of these reports, before the American people and let them be judged in light of the record that they remember and in light of history and be the final arbiter with regard to that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans wrote their report following 32 days of committee hearings held last summer and fall. They received direct testimony from 70 witnesses, including testimony from former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. In their report Republicans charge Ickes ran the day-to-day operations at the Democratic National Committee from the White House during the 1996 presidential campaign.
HAROLD ICKES, Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff: (October 7, 1997) I want to state categorically that I know of no violation of law or inappropriate action by the President or the vice president. I was unaware of any violation of law by the White House staff, the leadership of the DNC, or the Clinton-Gore Re-Election Campaign, or by the staffs of those two organizations. And I personally did not violate any law.
KWAME HOLMAN: But in their report Republicans on the committee determined the "Democratic Party campaign eviscerated federal fund-raising laws and reduced the White House key administration offices and the presidency, itself, to fund-raising tools." The report says, "The President, himself, exercised total control over DNC advertising. Having reduced the DNC into an arm of the White House President Clinton and Vice President Gore are responsible for the actions it undertook in their names and at their direction." During the hearings the committee also heard from Don Fowler, chairman of the DNC during the 1996 election.
DONALD FOWLER, Former DNC Chairman: (September 9, 1997) We at the Democratic National Committee made mistakes. As chair of the Democratic National Committee, I accept responsibility for those mistakes. To the best of my knowledge there was no intent by DNC officials to accept money from illegal foreign sources, despite the pressing needs during the campaign to raise large sums of money to compete with the far better financed campaigns of our opposition party.
KWAME HOLMAN: But in their report committee Republicans say they found "unprecedented amounts of illegal foreign contributions making their way into Democratic coffers." And the Republicans' report says there is "strong circumstantial evidence that the government of the People's Republic of China was involved in funding, directing, or encouraging some of these foreign contributions." Chairman Fred Thompson alluded to that China connection on the very first day of hearings last July.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: (July 8, 1997) The committee believes that high-level Chinese government officials crafted a plan to increase China's influence over the U.S. political process. 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.
KWAME HOLMAN: Committee Republicans also target Attorney General Janet Reno for criticism in the section of their report that determined "the President and particularly the Vice President were willing to use the power of their offices to make direct telephone solicitations for money." Republicans said they disagree with the attorney general, who rejected suggestions that she recommend the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether these calls violated a federal criminal law prohibiting the solicitation of campaign contributions on federal property. Democrats on the committee issued a report of their own findings. They say there were fund-raising abuses by both political parties made possible by loopholes in the current campaign financing system that they conclude is in need of an overhaul. They say there was no evidence of illegal activity by the President or Vice President in their efforts to help raise money for the DNC. But at today's session Senator John Glenn, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he wasn't interested in rehashing the issues that made the investigating hearings so contentious.
SEN. JOHN GLENN, (D) Ohio: I certainly agree with the chairman. I have no desire to re-enter the arguments that took place among the members of the committee over this past year.
KWAME HOLMAN: With that, Chairman Thompson called for a vote on the Republican majority's report. It was approved along straight party lines. No other Senator chose to speak. Chairman Johnson adjourned the meeting, and the work of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigation of campaign fund-raising abuses during the 1996 campaigns was done.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now the perspectives of two committee members, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli from New Jersey. Thank you both for being with us. Sen. Specter, what's the single most important finding, in your view, in your report?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, (R) Pennsylvania: That there was a tremendous amount of soft money put into both campaigns at the presidential level and most particularly the extraordinary steps taken by the President, himself, on the coffees illustrated by a memorandum from Democratic National Committee, these three individuals at a coffee can contribute up to $100,000. The coffee was held and four days later--a few days later four of them gave $100,000, and with the use of that soft money the President directly coordinated the advertisements, the ads, which were advocacy ads, which I think is a clear-cut violation of the federal election law--on the failure of that to be pursued by the Department of Justice, which has a conflict, and the failure of the attorney general to appoint independent counsel. That's the biggest point.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we should remind people those were coffees that were in the White House.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: That's right. Those coffees were in the White House in the Oval Office and not in the living quarters. Some of them were in the so-called situation room. But the White House was used, the Lincoln Bedroom. It is one thing to have guests over, friends of the President, the First Lady, but these were people that they really did not know. These were people--arrangements were made by Democratic National Committee, and it was part of an overall plan where the President said and he acknowledged this in one of the tapes, which I think was really the smoking gun, saying that without this kind of fund-raising, they could not, the Democrats could not repeat with the Republicans, and they were determined to do it. And from an even status in the polls because of this money raised, they were able to pull substantially ahead.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Torricelli, is that a proper reading of the evidence, from your point of view?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI, (D) New Jersey: Personally, as a member of the committee, I found the entire experience to be disappointing. This was a real chance to look at the abuses of campaign financing in America, to provide recommendations of how to change the law. And if it had been done right, it would have been a platform for genuine campaign reform on the floor of the Senate. None of that happened. Sen. Thompson began the hearings making wild accusations about the Chinese government that to this day he still cannot substantiate. Things were said about the President and the Vice President that were clearly--given the chance to do it again--they would do it differently. The Democratic National Committee was not run properly. But many of the allegations about illegal activities and raising funds at White House coffees--1100 people attended those coffees. They found one who says he was asked for a contribution. Wild accusations about the Vice President soliciting funds from his office--the FBI interviewed forty-five people. Every one of them claimed they were never asked for a hard money contribution. What this should have been was a bipartisan look at both campaigns where there were things done improperly and then, as the Congress has responsibility to do, we could have changed the law from there. Regrettably, none of that happened.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Sen. Torricelli, do you reject the conclusions that we just heard, the summary that we just heard in the majority report, the Republicans' report? Do you reject the conclusion, let's take China, for example, that circumstantial evidence shows that China may have had connections with some people who funneled moneys from abroad into campaigns?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: If there is evidence of a concerted plan by the Chinese government to influence the presidential campaigns, that evidence has not yet come to light. It may exist, but to this date Sen. Thompson began the hearing with that claim. The intelligence that I have seen, indeed, if there was any evidence of an attempt to influence elections in this country, there was some evidence that it was to influence congressional campaigns, none that it actually ever occurred.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Specter, what about that? Let's just stay on China for a minute. What does the evidence show, in your view?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: The evidence did show there was a connection. We had the confidential information that one of the individuals not yet publicly identified had a connection with the government of China. We have had indictments of Maria Hsa, of Charlie Trie. Both of those have a funneling of money which had its origin in China. Just today there is information that Johnny Chung has agreed to a plea bargain. Those individuals had connections into the government of China. John Huang, who was in the Commerce Department, also was a big fund-raiser, had connections with Lippo again that went into the government of China. I think the evidence was very substantial. It has to be circumstantial because most of those people are out of reach. But we may yet have some testimony from Charlie Trie or Maria Hsa. There's a possibility of a plea bargain. Johnny Chung has apparently agreed to a plea bargain, and one of the factors which is very much on my mind is how can the Department of Justice undertake those negotiations with people who are close to the President? Charlie Trie, a close personal friend of President Clinton, Maria Hsa have been raising money for Vice President Gore for a long time. Now, I'm not saying that that says that the President and Vice President did anything specially, but it may be that on a plea bargain and negotiations those people close to the President and Vice President would have something very damaging to say. I don't know. But I don't think that the Department of Justice can handle that. There's too much of a conflict of interest without independent counsel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just briefly on Maria Hsa, who is the person who organized the fund-raiser at the Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles at which Vice President Gore spoke, the report says that she's an agent of the Chinese government. What does that mean, "agent?"
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: It means that she was acting on behalf of the government of China. That's a very, very strong conclusion. And the report says it because there is evidence to back it up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Sen. Torricelli, do you agree that the evidence is there to back that up?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: What you have heard is that we have a series of individuals who clearly violated the law. They will and they should be prosecuted. But it isn't just circumstantial evidence to tie this either to the leadership of the Democratic Party or to the President. There is no evidence at all. And, indeed, if Sen. Thompson has it, he should be giving it to the Justice Department because at the moment what we're prosecuting here are some individuals. And to give you an example of why I think the report has so little credibility. The committee had extensive evidence that Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the RNC, solicited several million dollars in money from Hong Kong, directly foreign money to the highest reaches of the Republican Party. It barely had a mention in the report. I do not criticize Mr. Thompson for the fact that he mentions these individuals who broke the law of the Democratic Party. He should, and they should be cited. What I cannot understand is why the committee would sacrifice its credibility and not being balanced in mentioning potentially more serious abuses by the RNC.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator Specter, on that?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I think that Haley Barbour is discussed at some length in the report. Sen. Thompson in the hearings was very critical of Mr. Barbour, said that the money should have been returned. Haley Barbour acted on the advice of counsel. I said at the committee hearings that if you collapse the transactions with the corporations which faced up to the reality of it, that there was a very serious issue of misconduct by the Republican National Committee. I think we faced up to that in the hearings.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Specter, in the allegations that we've been talking about, do you have evidence that there was a quid pro quo, that some of the money raised from abroad, in particular, then led to changes in policy, or any specific quid pro quo?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: No, there was no evidence of that, but that is virtually impossible to get. The only time you would find that is if somebody very, very high up turns state's evidence. That is extraordinarily unlikely to occur, and we do not have evidence of a quid pro quo.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Sen. Torricelli, what is the most important finding, briefly, in the minority report, which is coming out Tuesday?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: That the campaign finance system of America just doesn't work. The Democratic National Committee did make misjudgments, and so did the Republicans. And that's going to be a part of the inevitable chase for money until we do something about the cost of television advertising, independent expenditures, the race for soft money. There is no governing authority in the United States now for federal campaigns. The law is being violated in the majority It is a system that is long since broken, and the tragedy of all of this is that since the committee had its hearings, there have been two debates, two votes, and two defeats for campaign finance reform on the floor of the Senate. That's the final judgment.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: May I make a comment in agreement?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I agree with Sen. Torricelli that campaign finance is urgently required. And I do think that there was an opportunity for the committee to make a very decisive advance there, and it broke down for two reasons. One is that there was a conclusion date of December 31st, which was a gigantic mistake that many us said--December 31st--a gigantic mistake, and the second part was that the hearings did generate into partisan bickering. And I don't think you can assess blame. It would be pointless to do. But I think overall the committee did make some important presentations of fact but didn't go nearly as far as we might have had there not been that termination date and had we been able to work on a bipartisan basis.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Thank you.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Nice to be with you. Thank you.