WASHINGTON -- The long-awaited Senate hearings on campaign fund-raising abuses opened yesterday with charges by the panel's chairman that China secretly plotted to subvert U.S. elections in 1996, and a surprise announcement that a key witness was now willing to testify in exchange for partial immunity.
Though senators reacted with caution to the offer from Democratic fund-raiser John Huang, some said his testimony is so potentially crucial that they would seriously consider his proposal.
During a day of civil, yet highly partisan proceedings -- in which the panel's nine Republicans and seven Democrats presented opening statements to a full house of reporters, photographers and Capitol Hill staffers -- there were no new revelations about irregular fund-raising practices among Democrats, but many questions were raised.
"There apparently was a systematic influx of illegal money in our presidential race last year," said Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, the Republican chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.
"We will be wanting to know: Who knew about it? Who should have known about it? And whether or not there was an attempt to cover it up."
Democrats insisted that fund-raising abuses were prevalent among both parties.
"The abuses have been bipartisan, and our investigations must be bipartisan," said the ranking Democrat, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio.
In a separate statement, Thompson said evidence provided to ** the committee by U.S. intelligence shows that high-level Chinese officials crafted a plan, which continues today "inside and outside" the United States, to influence the American political process by pouring illegal money into campaigns for the presidency as well as Congress.
"This raises questions about who in the White House should have known -- or actually knew -- of the Chinese plan and how it had come to be implemented," he said.
Future discussions closed
Because of the sensitive nature of the information, further discussions of the plan will be held in closed-door sessions of the committee, the chairman said.
But top Democrats on the committee challenged Thompson's charge, saying their interpretation of the classified documents was that China mostly wanted to step up its lobbying efforts of Congress after realizing how much influence lawmakers have on foreign policy decisions.
Glenn said the documents suggested to him that China's plan also was "designed to pour money into mainly legislative races targeted at Congress."
The Chinese government has vehemently denied allegations, made earlier, that it tried to influence congressional races.
Catching the panel off-guard was the 11th-hour offer by Huang, a key figure who had previously refused to testify, to appear before the committee in exchange for "limited immunity" against prosecution.
The committee agreed to consider the offer -- which came in a letter faxed from Huang's lawyer to Glenn yesterday morning -- pending further information on precisely what Huang would disclose.
But those on both sides expressed some reservations about the deal.
Thompson said Huang was "asking for something we probably legally cannot give him. My feeling is there's no such thing as limited immunity."
"You either have immunity or you don't," he said. "It might be that we might, under some circumstances, want to give him complete immunity.
"But you don't buy a pig in a poke. You don't give anybody immunity unless you know that their testimony will be helpful."
Glenn, who said he would await a Justice Department opinion before deciding, said Huang was not seeking immunity from prosecution for any act of espionage, any act as an agent for a foreign government or any offense involving the disclosure of classified information.
Nor would the former Commerce Department official be immune from perjury charges.
Under Huang's proposal, however, he would be immune from prosecution for any violations of campaign finance law.
Huang, a Chinese-American who coordinated Asian-American fund-raising for the Democratic Party, raised $3.4 million for the Democrats in 1995 and 1996, almost half of which has been returned because of its questionable origin.
He had previously said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
But Huang's lawyer, Ty Cobb, said in yesterday's letter: "Having become a defenseless target for Asian bashers Mr. Huang feels compelled to forgo the security of his constitutional protections and to attempt honorably to acknowledge whatever mistakes he may have made over time."
At the center of the tale
Huang is at the center of the story the Republicans seek to tell during the hearings.
Utah Republican Robert F. Bennett said Huang was juggling the demands of three forces: the Lippo Group, an Indonesian banking conglomerate for which he once worked; the Chinese government with whom he had contact; and the Clinton administration, which afforded him, as a Commerce official, briefings and access to high-level classified documents.
"This raises for me one overwhelming question: Who was John Huang's patron?" Bennett asked.
"He didn't get where he got by virtue of his personality. He got there because of a patron."
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said Huang's activities "had all the earmarks" of espionage, a crime he noted was punishable in some cases with death.
Democrats sought to shift the focus off their party's leaders and onto the fund-raising system in general, described by one as an "accident waiting to happen."
Nearly all described the "money mania" of politics and called for campaign finance reform, opposed by most Republicans.
"We already know where and who the enemy is," said Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.
"It is domestic, and it is us."
In especially partisan opening remarks that clearly miffed Thompson, Glenn offered a detailed analysis of Republican fund-raising irregularities, especially the solicitation of foreign money by the National Policy Forum, a Republican think tank headed by former GOP chairman Haley Barbour.
The hearings continue today with Richard Sullivan, the former finance director of the Democratic National Committee, as the first witness before the committee.
Pub Date: 7/09/97