WASHINGTON -- Sen. Fred Thompson may have to call upon every theatrical trick he ever picked up in his movie career as he opens the long-delayed hearings on campaign fund-raising abuses this week.
The Tennessee Republican faces a climate of partisan sniping so bitter it nearly derailed the hearings, an expectation that there will be no real surprises and -- perhaps most of all -- a public already inured to politicians' questionable money-grubbing ways.
Still, in hearings that begin tomorrow and are scheduled to last through the end of the year, Thompson -- who honed his prosecutorial skills as Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee, and his dramatic flair in a score of Hollywood films -- will try to "tell the story" of what happened in the 1996 campaign.
"We've seen a pattern of abuse that is unparalleled," said committee spokesman Paul Clark. "It needs to be explored."
Thompson, chairman of the Committee on Government Affairs, is to focus primarily on the influx of money from overseas to the Democratic coffers, probing for attempts by foreign governments and corporations to use money to influence policy.
In a second phase slated for the fall, the panel will examine the unregulated "soft money" that flowed to the parties in the last election, circumventing the spirit, if not the letter, of laws that limit individual contributions. That segment could have a greater impact on efforts to reform the campaign finance system.
Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the panel, has made sure his party's fund-raising practices won't be the only ones examined.
But the bulk of the hearings will be devoted to a probe of the Democrats, with Republicans trying to make the case that high-ranking White House and Democratic National Committee officials were willing to use any means -- even if it meant skirting campaign finance laws (spawned by the Watergate scandal) -- to build their war chest.
Nearly 200 people have been subpoenaed, and Thompson said yesterday that even more might be called to testify. Thompson, appearing on ABC's "This Week," refused to identify who would be subpoenaed.
Democratic Party officials have admitted they "messed up," as one DNC lawyer put it, and have already returned $2.8 million in illegal or dubious contributions from the 1996 campaign.
But in their defense, Democrats are expected to argue that top officials were unaware of the tactics of several overzealous fund-raisers, namely John Huang, a former Commerce Department official who is alleged to have funneled money from overseas Asian interests to the DNC, and Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, a former Arkansas restaurant owner linked to contributions from foreign sources.
"We certainly haven't seen any evidence to indicate that the people higher up in the campaign had any knowledge of any attempt by foreign entities to influence the election," said Peter J. Kadzik, a lawyer for the DNC.
To the frustration of Republicans, many key players -- including Huang and Trie -- have either refused to testify without immunity, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, or have fled the country.
Trie, tracked down in Shanghai recently by NBC-TV, said he would not return to the United States. "They'll never find me," he said.
So the Senate panel has called as witnesses people associated with Huang and Trie. They include two homemakers from Gaithersburg: Yue F. Chu and Xi Ping Wang, relatives of a man who worked for a Trie associate.
Investigators say the women, who have been granted immunity and are expected to testify next week, were solicited to front campaign contributions for a Macao businessman who is not a U.S. resident, thus cannot legally contribute in American elections.
First up this week is an array of top administration and DNC officials -- past and present -- including former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes; Clinton aide and confidant Bruce Lindsey; Maggie Williams, former chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton; and former Democratic Party Chairman Don Fowler.
One player who, according to committee spokesman Clark, will not be called to testify is expected to be a focal point of the proceedings: Vice President Al Gore.
Gore has come under fire for attending an April 1996 fund-raiser, arranged by Huang, at a Buddhist temple in California. It is illegal to raise money at a religious facility, and Gore has admitted that his attendance was a mistake, although he says he did not know the luncheon was a fund-raiser.
Evidence also suggests that much of the money raised there was channeled illegally through the monks and nuns who were later reimbursed by the Taiwan-based Buddhist sect.
This episode could provide some of the more colorful moments because the Buddhist worshipers -- not your typical men in suits -- are expected to be called to the witness table.
Democrats, who are trying to portray the hearings as politically motivated, say they believe the Republicans will try to damage Gore, the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, especially since Thompson is said to have Oval Office ambitions of his own.
"I think Fred Thompson would love to be president of the United States, and if he can take a few stomps on Al Gore's back on his way there, he's not going to miss the opportunity," said former Gore aide Marla Romash.
Thompson, for his part, brushed off the suggestion that he views the hearings as a stepping stone to the presidency. But, he said, "Clearly, if you do a good job, you're enhanced in every way, and if you do a bad job, you're not."
The way you do a good job, he said on CNN late last week, "is to follow the facts where they lead and be fair in the way that you treat people and handle the investigation. If I'm able to do that, I will live with whatever political consequences come from that."
Even with such talk of fairness, the backbiting has been intense. To wrest concessions from the Republicans, Democrats had blocked immunity, which requires a two-thirds vote, for 18 witnesses from whom Thompson wanted to compel testimony, including some of the monks and nuns.
Democrats agreed to go along with the immunity procedure in exchange for a guarantee from Thompson that he would approve their request for two dozen subpoenaes of GOP organizations.
Among the groups Democrats want to examine is the now-defunct National Policy Forum, a think tank with close ties to the Republican National Committee; it was founded and chaired by then-RNC chair Haley Barbour.
Democrats charge that Barbour used the forum as an arm of the RNC to solicit foreign donations. Barbour, in response, said the forum was legally allowed to accept foreign donations.
Parallel hearings in the House, chaired by Indiana Rep. Dan Burton, were scheduled to begin in the fall, but are now so mired in problems and power struggles -- the chief Republican counsel abruptly quit last week -- that their fate is unclear and credibility possibly undermined.
The Justice Department, too, began its own inquiry last year.
But it's the Senate committee, which has budgeted $4.3 million and has sent investigators to Hong Kong, Macao, Indonesia and Taiwan, that has the greatest chance to capture the public's attention.
Democrats are trying to play down the hearings, saying they will be as stale and ho-hum as summer reruns. And they've done their best to ensure that -- disclosing potentially damaging information ahead of time in an effort to steal the committee's thunder and diminish the news value of the hearings.
"I think basically it's not going to be a firecracker; it's just going to be a small pop," said DNC lawyer Judah Best.
But Thompson is trying to pique interest, saying he wouldn't get started if he didn't think there would be something of interest.
Still, it may be a tough sell. A recent poll showed that only 27 percent of Americans believe the hearings will be fair and impartial.
The biggest question of all will be whether the hearings succeed in one of Thompson's stated goals: paving the way for reforms of the campaign finance system.
Kent Cooper, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a bipartisan research group, said it will take a "dramatic shift" away from partisan fighting and toward cooperation on the committee. "You need Thompson and Glenn to move into a mode of leadership we haven't seen in a long time," he said.
Asked what he thought the chances were of that shift taking place, he echoed the sentiments of the country: "Slim."
Pub Date: 7/07/97