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Four of the five immunized by the committee were Buddhist nuns who had donated money – later returned – to the Democratic National Committee. The nuns made the donations at a Buddhist temple fund raiser attended by Vice President Gore. The vote to immunize the nuns was 15-1. Only Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) objected.
The fifth person immunized was an associate of Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie who donated $15,000 to the DNC despite only earning $22,000 a year as a welfare department employee in Virginia. That immunity vote was 13-3, with three Democrats objecting.
The Justice Department opposed granting immunity for the five. Although they have approved immunity for 11 out 26 individuals the oversight committee is considering.
The department's position evoked criticism from a number of senators, including some Democrats, that Justice officials were not taking the Senate's investigation seriously.
"Our meeting with them yesterday was little more than another lesson in constitutional law in terms of the separation of powers and was not in any way helpful in terms of making this decision," Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) said. "I feel then and feel now that we are now as individuals responsible for deciding each and every case when it comes to immunity."
And Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN), the chair of the committee, suggested that political motivations may have influenced the department's descision.
"I think they're in a conflict situation, and specifically with regard to four of the five individuals here," Sen. Thompson said while debating the immunity issue in committee. "It has to do with an event, which is under great suspicion. It had to do with the President's campaign coffers, and it had to do with the attendence of the Vice President.
"I could not think of a situation that puts the Justice Department in more of a conflict in determining whether or not it wants to hear evidence with regard to that matter," Sen. Thompson said.
Bert Brandenberg, a Justice Department spokesman, though, defended the Justice Department's decision.
"The Justice Department has a simple job: to prosecute wrong-doing and protect that prosecution," Brandenberg said. "Congress want's a witness for a day. The Justice Department has to analyze the person's total activities and their impact on other major cases."
Sen. Lieberman, a member of committee, said he backed the Justice Department's decision.
"I personally conclude that while these five would, if I may put it this way, add texture to what we will otherwise be able to prove here. Their value to us is not significantly so great that it justifies what this immunity will do to the criminal proceedings," Lieberman said.
This is not the first time Senators and prosecutors have disagreed over immunity. The Senate committee investigating the Watergate break-in granted immunity to White House council John Dean in exchange for testimony against President Nixon despite objections from Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
In the mid-80's, the Senate committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal granted limited immunity to Col. Oliver North and Admiral John Poindexter, to gain their testimony.
"My point of view on Iran-Contra is [that] educating the country as to what happened in a crisis is far more important than prosecuting unless you have a major felony involved," former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-NH), chair of the Iran-Contra committee, said during a historical look at previous Congressional hearing on the NewsHour.
Rudman also noted, though, that Congressional hearings increasingly "tend to run in track with criminal investigations."
"So you tend to cripple these investigations before they start because of the dual track, and that's a real problem," he said.
The relationship between Congress and prosecutors became even trickier after the Iran-Contra hearings. Col. North, who had been found guilty on charges related to the Iran-Contra affair, had his convictions thown out by a federal judge because of the immunity granted by Congress.
Because of that precedent, Attorney General Reno has opposed efforts to grant limited immunity to John Huang, a former Democratic fund-raiser and Commerce Department official who has been placed in the center of the campaign finance investigation.
Huang has so far refused to testify before the committee by citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminated himself. However, his lawyers say he would testify if given partial immunity.
The North precedent, though, makes it almost impossible to prosecute anyone given even partial immunity by Congress, explained Joseph DiGenova, a former independent council who investigated the search of President Clinton's passport files, during a NewsHour discussion of a possible immunity deal for Huang.
"Basically, the court said unless you can show that no witness and no juror ever heard any of his testimony and couldn't have been influenced by it, you can't go forward with any prosecution," said Di Genova. "That's why the attorney general yesterday was adamantly opposed to granting Mr. Huang any kind of immunity."
Although the Justice Department opposes the possible deal, lawyers for the committee and Huang continue to work on a possible agreement.