THE HEARINGS: DAY ONE
July 8, 1997
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KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Fred Thompson, the chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, didn't schedule appearances by any witnesses today. He knew opening statements delivered by the committee's 16 members would take up most of the day. Consequently, there was little anticipation any headlines would be made during the first day of hearings, but then Sen. Thompson, himself, opened with what sounded like a news flash.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON, Chairman, Governmental Affairs Committee: Our ability to release this information in the public forum just came about, and it's important that it be placed on the public record I believe as soon as possible and in a careful and accurate manner. So I would like to turn our attention to one of the most troublesome areas of this investigation. I speak of allegations concerning a plan hatched during the last election cycle by the Chinese government and designed to pour illegal money into American political campaigns. The plan had a goal: to buy access and influence in furtherance of Chinese government interests.
KWAME HOLMAN: Without providing detail, Thompson said his committee had confirmed what several newspapers reported earlier this year.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: 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. Activities in furtherance of the plan have occurred both inside and outside of the United States. Our investigation suggests that the plan continues today. Although most discussions of the plan focuses on Congress, our investigation suggests it affected the 1996 presidential race and state elections as well. The government of China is believed to have allocated substantial sums of money to achieve its objectives. Another aspect of the plan is remarkable because it shows that the PRC is interested in developing long-term relationships with persons it has identified as up and coming government--up and coming officials at state and local levels. The intent is to establish relations that can be cultivated as the officials rise through the ranks to higher office. My comments provide only a broad outline of the Chinese plan. The great majority of information about this matter cannot be discussed further in open session. The committee expects to hold closed executive sessions sometime soon to consider this matter more closely.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the committee, picked up on the chairman's comments and urged against overreaction.
SEN. JOHN GLENN, (D) Ohio: According to the press the Chinese government intended to use a relatively modest amount of money to gain influence in the Washington lobbying game, and it intended to do this by focusing on the legislative branch of government. Now, I mention these reports here because I am greatly concerned about how the reports are sometimes discussed by individuals in this body and in the press. I've heard language like infiltration, foreign spies, foreigners, as we're jeopardizing our national security. Well, on this issue the committee should go just as far as the facts take us, recognizing that it's the FBI that's in a much better position to--than a congressional committee--to do an espionage investigation. Now, let's be careful, however, not to jump to conclusions that treason has been committed based on a partial story with ambiguous information. But wherever the trail leads let's look at it. And we want to do it fairly. This committee--we go back in our records--we have a very unhappy history in that respect, as far as ambiguous information goes.
KWAME HOLMAN: Glenn then went on to make some headlines of his own by announcing that John Huang, considered to be the key player in the campaign finance investigation, had offered to testify before the committee if certain conditions were met. Huang was a top executive of the Indonesian-based Lippo Group, whose owners reportedly have close ties to Democratic Party politics. He later joined the Commerce Department and gained White House security clearance. Huang then moved over to the Democratic National Committee and raised nearly $3 1/2 million, money which since has been traced to foreign interests, and about half of it has been returned.
SEN. JOHN GLENN: It's been suggested that Mr. Huang leaked classified information while at Commerce to his former employer and possibly to a foreign government. Few charges could be more serious. Sometime ago minority counsel Alan Baron approached Mr. Huang's attorney to explore the possibility of Mr. Huang appearing to testify before this committee. Those discussions have continued and come to fruition not only the last few days but the last few hours, over the weekend and, indeed, in some respects just this morning. And I wish to report that counsel for Mr. Huang has stated that Mr. Huang is willing to come before the committee and not exercise his 5th Amendment right. He will respond to any question the committee may ask on any aspects of our investigation. He will ask for limited immunity only, limited immunity because of certain FEC and Hatch Act allegations against him. Now, the limited immunity would not apply to the criminal charges--to testify without immunity relating to criminal charges that could result if he committed espionage or even economic espionage, if he disclosed classified information to anyone not authorized to receive it; if he acted as an agent for any foreign government; if he commits perjury; if he makes any false statement under oath. While Mr. Huang will answer questions on any subject, his testimony can be used against him in a prosecution for any of these charges. It's my view that upon completion of the opening statements today, the committee should go into executive session to consider such a proffer.
KWAME HOLMAN: On a day that was expected to be short on suspense, Sen. Glenn's announcement was a bombshell, and it caught Sen. Thompson off guard.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: We certainly do want to discuss this new information. I think it's very important, and I think it's encouraging. There are some serious questions that have to be asked about it, however, and I know that other members of the committee will want to discuss that as to exactly how we move forward. But I welcome very much these developments.
KWAME HOLMAN: The issue of granting immunity to a potential star witness was put aside, while members laid out the areas they want to target during the upcoming investigation. For most Republicans, the focus is the President.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI, (R) New Mexico: The American people have a right to know and we have a responsibility to examine whether foreign nationals, some of them known criminals, were given access to the President of the United States at the White House and at fund-raising events in exchange for questionable campaign contributions.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN, (R) Mississippi: Another finding that I believe these hearings will disclose is that they developed at the Clinton White House an aggressive plan to use the office of the President to raise unprecedented amounts of money, rewarding large donors with travel aboard Air Force One, overnight stays at the White House, and special briefings on administration policy plans.
KWAME HOLMAN: Most Democrats on the committee say the hearings will be successful only if they lead to reforms in the way campaigns are financed.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, (D) Illinois: The problem is not just foreign money; it's good old American money. It's hard money, soft money, and mystery money. When fund-raising fever is raging, parties and candidates rationalize ways to raise money which they're embarrassed to admit after the election. And as we gingerly step through this political minefield, trying to pick and choose appropriate outrages, we ignore the big picture, which, unfortunately, includes the accusers, as well as the accused.
KWAME HOLMAN: And from Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii came a request that as the committee investigates the Asian connection to campaign fund-raising abuses, it not implicate all Asian-Americans in the process.
SEN. DANIEL AKAKA, (D) Hawaii: We must not be guilty of selective harassment of those with Asian surnames. Such actions only underscore the Asian Pacific American community's fear that they are being held responsible for the alleged transgressions of some individuals who happen to be of Asian heritage.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the conclusion of the opening statements, Chairman Thompson instructed committee lawyers to discuss terms of a possible immunity deal with Huang's lawyers. In the meantime, the committee will hear from its first witness tomorrow, Richard Sullivan, finance director for the Democratic National Committee.