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SEN. JOHN GLENN, Ohio: So we have a total of four the committee can work with--Chu, Wang, Suiw, and Huei.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON, Tennessee: That's pretty good.
KWAME HOLMAN: There will be a strong "China Link" at the center of the committee's investigation of fund-raising practices during the 1996 presidential campaign. It's one of the main reasons congressional Republicans called for an investigation in the first place.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN, Mississippi: There is clear evidence of a lot of fund-raising activity, a lot of access with the White House and top officials of the administration, one working at the Department of Commerce.
This is John Huang. He was a top U.S. Lippo executive. He was a top Democratic National Committee fund-raiser. He had a top secret security clearance while at Commerce even before--we have now learned--and had almost unlimited White House access.
Johnnie Chung visited the White House at least 50 times; brought several Communist Party officials, Chinese Government officials to the White House, and maintains business relationships in China. Charlie Trie, Little Rock restaurateur, has visited the White House from twenty to thirty times, owns a home and restaurant in Beijing.
All three participated in very productive fund-raising activities for the Democratic National Committee or the President's legal expense fund. Approximately $4.5 million was raised by these three individuals for the Democratic National Committee.
KWAME HOLMAN: Much of that $4.5 million has been traced to overseas interests. It is illegal for a candidate or party to accept foreign campaign contributions, and, to date, the Democratic National Committee has returned $2.8 million of such funds.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: It cost so much money to run these campaigns that mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently. Now, others, it's up to others to decide whether those mistakes were made deliberately or inadvertently.
KWAME HOLMAN: That charge has been given--in part--to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which will convene its first hearing at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning. Paul Clarke is the committee's communications director.
PAUL CLARKE, Senate Governmental Affairs communications director: What we hope to do is tell a story to the people and let them understand what happened to their political system in 1996. It's left to the Justice Department and others in the administration or in the executive branch to prosecute, if that's the case.
That being the case, we're going to try to tell in July the first part of the story and to--there are some very serious matters here, and it's something that if the American public wants to know, they're going to have to follow, and I'm not sure exactly what the net effect of it is going to be, but it's not our job at this point to try to draw a conclusion for them. It's simply to give them the story and let them draw their own conclusion.
KWAME HOLMAN: The chairman of the committee is Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee. He's a former Hollywood actor but in 1974 played a real-life supporting role as Minority Counsel to the Senate Committee investigating Watergate. Now, he's the leading man in another high-profile hearing and has a greater ability to act. Already he has approved subpoenas for 30 witnesses.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Anyone who's within the jurisdiction of this committee who has information that this committee needs, the majority or minority, if they will not voluntarily comply, I will issue a subpoena for them.
KWAME HOLMAN: Included among the witnesses subpoenaed by the committee are: President Clinton's close adviser Bruce Lindsey; former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes; and Mrs. Clinton's former Chief of Staff, Margaret Williams. But issuing a subpoena doesn't guarantee a witness will testify. There is constitutional protection against self-incrimination. The committee can encourage testimony by granting a witness immunity from later prosecution and, in fact, has voted to do so for several low-priority witnesses so far.
The committee has asked the Justice Department to comment on proposed grants of immunity, but Senator Thompson made it clear the committee doesn't need the Department's permission.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: I mean, historically committees have granted immunity many times when the prosecuting arm, whether it be the Justice Department or the special counsel, has objected. Historically, the special counsel has considered it its job to object in many cases, and, by the same token, many committees have chosen to ignore it and go ahead. And I'm not suggesting that we ignore it. I'm suggesting that it's a weighing process.
KWAME HOLMAN: The ranking Democrat on the committee--Ohio Senator John Glenn--agrees the committee needs to proceed cautiously.
SEN. JOHN GLENN: They may, without us knowing about it, have a case being prepared against a certain person and if we grant immunity, it fouls up prosecution of that case. We've seen cases in the past where immunity was granted by the Congress that did result in the reversal of a court case later on.
KWAME HOLMAN: The most notable such reversal was in the case against Oliver North resulting from the Iran-Contra Affair. A federal appeals court threw out three criminal convictions against the former Marine because prosecutors couldn't prove the testimony North gave to Congress under a grant of limited immunity hadn't been used against North during his criminal trial.
Such legal hurdles mean this Senate committee might not get to hear from several key players in the campaign fund-raising saga, including: Former Commerce Department official John Huang, who has shown no interest in cooperating with the committee; California businessman Johnny Chung, seen here with President and Mrs. Clinton at a White House event in 1992; and Little Rock restauranteur Charlie Trie, who reportedly is in China and has no plans to return to the United States.
Chairman Thompson himself admits there will be some empty chairs in the hearing room but says there will be enough witnesses to enlighten the American people.
PAUL CLARKE: I think that probably you are seeing we are about to undertake hearings on the most--the broadest investigation in congressional history, certainly in recent years. We're talking about an investigation that relates to 12 or more countries around the world, individuals who have fled the country, individuals who have said they are taking the Fifth Amendment and they would not testify before us. Hundreds of individuals we've talked to and deposed, you're talking about subpoenas in the number of something over 150 that have been issued thus far. So we're talking about a very broad investigation, and this is only the first phase of it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Phase two of the hearings begins in the fall when the committee turns its attention to the issue of "soft money"--unlimited contributions made to political parties--critics charge--in order to skirt limits on direct contributions to candidates. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats succeeded in forcing a reluctant Republican majority to focus on the soft-money issue, and the committee will deliver subpoenas to dozens of organizations with ties to both Democratic and Republican fund-raising efforts.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Some may remember we've not always agreed on the issuance of subpoenas on this committee.
KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, just a few weeks ago, a partisan debate over the subpoena issue threatened the start of committee hearings. And some of those partisan feelings still remain.
SEN. DON NICKLES, Oklahoma: I think it's ridiculous for us to be subpoenaing groups like the Heritage Foundation or the Sierra Club and most of these groups on both sides. I don't know if the NEA did anything wrong, or the American Defense Foundation, or Right to Life Committee, or Citizens for a Sound Economy or Emily's List. I don't know. I just look at this and it looks to me like Democrats have been trying to go after a bunch of Republican-tinted groups, and so let's go after the Democrat-tinted groups that are all involved in elections so we'll all get warehouses full of information of which we won't have time to thoroughly review.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Senator Glenn.
SEN. JOHN GLENN: Mr. Chairman, it is hard not to rise to that bait and open this thing all over again and I don't want to do that. We have worked behind the scenes. Not one of our subpoenas was requested without there being some allegation to that organization in the press repeatedly, and we've cited those when we put the subpoenas in.
KWAME HOLMAN: During the opening phase of the hearing Senator Glenn and Democrats will be able to investigate Republican fund-raising practices. Phase one will include questions about the National Policy Forum, a conservative think tank that contributed nearly $2 million to the Republican Party in 1994. Money that can be traced to foreign interests in Hong Kong.
But whatever revelations come out over the next several weeks, Chairman Thompson says he doesn't want the hearings to breakdown into an embarrassing partisan fight in front of a national audience.
It's Senator Thompson's hope that, as Chairman, he'll be able to mediate such differences of opinions and keep the partisan rhetoric to a minimum.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: We have an obligation - we have an opportunity to be able together to act like adults doing adult work. The American people don't expect much out of us anymore and we seldom dissapoint them. We have an opportunity to turn that around a little bit. We will do it fair and do it tough and at the end of the day make recommendations and make findings that will actually benefit the system. So there is a part of it we will have to look back then we need to look to the future.
KWAME HOLMAN: An indication of just how partisan the proceedings will be could come as early as tomorrow when members give their individual views of the hearing in their opening statements