World

Hot on the trail

A Senate committee probes Clinton's campaign funding

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 21 1997
World

Hot on the trail

A Senate committee probes Clinton's campaign funding

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 21 1997

Hot on the trail

World

A Senate committee probes Clinton's campaign funding

ANDREW PHILLIPS

IN WASHINGTON

By the time Fred Thompson, the Tennessee senator and sometime actor, opened his hearings last week into campaign-funding abuses, the movie metaphors had seemingly been exhausted. It was said that Thompson-a vet eran of tough-guy parts in such films as The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard 2-had found the role of a lifetime presid ing over the first public probe into the trail of foreign money that flooded into the American political system last year. If he succeed eul went the conventional wisdom,

Thompson could transform himself from a bit player in Washington to a leading man among Republicans— perhaps even the party’s presidential candidate in the year 2000.

By the time Fred Thompson, the Tennessee senator and sometime actor, opened his hearings last week into campaign-funding abuses, the movie metaphors had seemingly been exhausted. It was said that Thompson—a veteran of tough-guy parts in such films as The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard 2—had found the role of a lifetime presiding over the first public probe into the trail of foreign money that flooded into the American political system last year. If he succeeded, went the conventional wisdom,

But as Thompson’s inquiry completed its first week of open hearings, the script had changed. Instead of living up to its billing as a summer blockbuster, Thompson’s Capitol Hill show seemed to be turning into the political equivalent of a foreign-language art movie—worthy, high-minded, but playing only to a small and dedicated audience. It did not help that the supposed villains of the piece are, in fact, little-known foreigners with such names as John Huang, Yah Lin Trie and Johnny Chung. And it especially did not help that Thompson chose to open the session by grilling a young Democratic fund-raiser named Richard Sullivan, who managed in two days not to let slip anything that would hurt his party or President Bill Clinton. After watching Republican senators try vainly to get Sullivan to agree with their theories on how Clinton’s fund-raising efforts went awry, Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, remarked bluntly: “I find a surreal quality to these hearings.”

That assessment may be premature. Thompson’s Governmental Affairs Committee has until Dec. 31 to complete its inquiry, and he had warned in advance that he intended to present a “mosaic” of information over many weeks that would eventually demonstrate a pattern of wrongdoing, rather than opening with an attentiongrabbing bombshell. But the committee has bigger problems than that. The most prominent figures implicated in raising foreign money for the Democrats—the incendiary events that sparked the inquiry—have fled the United States or said they will take cover behind the Fifth Amendment. The White House has stolen Thompson’s thunder by releasing potentially damaging information on its own. And Thompson himself is not entirely trusted by hardliners in his own party, who want the hearings to focus on Clinton’s sins rather than provide an evenhanded look at abuses by both parties. Long before the inquiry opened, a magazine that speaks for right-wing Republicans, the Weekly Standard, portrayed him as “too squishy” in dealing with Democrats.

“Squishy” is about the last word most people would apply to

Thompson. At six feet, six inches, he towers over his colleagues and manages to project both a sense of power and a down-home quality that helped him win easy election to the Senate from Tennessee in 1994. Before that, he had combined two careers. By day, despite his aw-shucks style, he was a prominent Washington lawyer-lobbyist. His sideline was more visible and glamorous: character parts in a succession of Hollywood movies. His film career began when Thompson, now 54, represented a Tennessee woman, Marie Ragghianti, who accused the state’s governor of selling pardons. The governor went to prison in 1984, and Thompson persuaded the producers of a movie based on the story— Marie, starring Sissy Spacek—to let him play himself.

Thompson was, it turned out, a natural. Ever since, he has been in demand for parts as a gruff but folksy authority figure. He played an admiral in The Hunt for Red October, an air traffic controller in Die Hard 2, a corrupt senator in Born Yesterday, a CIA director in No Way Out. All together he has been in 18 movies, giving him a profile that helped him win his Senate seat. His opponent portrayed him as a “Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington specialinterest lobbyist.” But Thompson played unashamedly to the back-home crowd by shucking his suits in favor of work shirts and cowboy boots, and driving a red pickup all over Tennessee.

He won in a landslide.

Thompson may have charmed his fellow Tennesseans, but he has not managed the same trick with his Republican colleagues in the Senate. His first public role was as a Republican counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the Watergate scandal in 1973—an episode that some Republicans still look back on as a partisan attack on their president, Richard Nixon.

As a relative newcomer to the Senate, a small and extremely exclusive club, Thompson does not have the deep party roots that would allow him to easily command their confidence. He is also one of only two Republican senators to support the controversial McCain-Feingold bill that would impose new limits on how politicians raise campaign funds—something most Republicans vehemently oppose. It all feeds Republican fears that Thompson’s hearings may turn into an exposé of abuses on both sides, letting Clinton dodge the foreign-money bullet.

Hardline Republicans hold out more hope for separate hearings in the House of Representatives to be chaired by Dan Burton, the far-right Indiana congressman. Burton is rabidly anti-Clinton: almost alone in Congress he has maintained that a former confidant of Hillary Rodham Clinton who was involved in the Whitewater scandals, Vincent Foster, was murdered rather than committed suicide in 1993. He has even questioned the use of taxpayers’ money to answer fan mail sent to the Clintons’ family cat, Socks. Burton’s investigators are moving slowly, and he has scheduled no hearings yet.

On the face of it, Thompson’s inquiry has plenty to look into. Since last fall’s presidential campaign, the Democrats have been forced to admit that they accepted suspect, and sometimes illegal, donations from foreign sources. Both Republicans and Democrats collected unprecedented sums—about $365 million—for the 1996 elections, and Clinton’s campaign was hardest hit by allegations of improper contributions. At the centre of the inquiry is John Huang, a Chinese-American who once worked for the Lippo Group, an Indonesian conglomerate with ties to Chi-

nese government companies. Huang used his connections with Clinton to land a mid-level job at the commerce department in Washington, and then, Sullivan acknowledged at last week’s hearings, was hired as a Democratic fund-raiser partly on the recommendation of the President himself. Huang visited the White House at least 23 times and raised nearly $4 million for the Democrats; the party has returned about half because it came from foreign sources.

Several other Democratic donors with Asian connections had unusual access to the White House. One, former Arkansas restaurant owner Yah Lin Trie, raised $875,000 for Clinton’s legal defence fund— money that has also been returned as suspect. Another, Johnny Chung, gave $500,000 to the Democrats and went to the White House 49 times, often accompanied by associates from China. The Democrats maintain that the illegal donations slipped through a system that was working overtime to collect the tens of millions of dollars needed to fuel a modern presidential campaign. Republicans suggest something more sinister.

Thompson put his party’s views forward in unvarnished language moments after he opened the hearings last week. He said his committee has evidence that the Chinese government planned “to pour illegal money into American political campaigns.” The plan had a goal, he said: “to buy access and influence in furtherance of Chinese government interests.” Thompson maintained that Beijing launched its scheme in 1995 after it was caught off guard by Washington’s decision to grant a visa to the president of Taiwan, Li Teng-hui. The Chinese, he said, were dea. termined to increase their influ! ence in the United States—part| ly by legal methods such as I increased lobbying, but also by § illegally funnelling money into the campaigns of prominent politicians and “up-and-coming” candidates at state and local levels. “Our investigations,” he said, “suggest that the plan continues today.” Thompson’s inquiry will seek to prove that money sent to the Democrats by Huang, Trie, Chung and others ultimately came from Beijing.

The accusation was dramatic, but it did not go beyond widely published allegations—and Thompson offered no firm evidence to back it up. The Democrats had their own surprise: a letter from Huang offering to appear before the committee under certain conditions. But that bogged down in behind-thescenes discussions over whether he would be offered immunity from prosecution if he testifies. The Democrats also managed to deflect attacks on Clinton by drawing attention to recent revelations that the Republicans accepted foreign money in the form of donations by the U.S. subsidiary of a Hong Kong real estate company to a party-controlled foundation. The back-and-forth provided many subplots—but little in the way of a compelling narrative for voters. □