WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate committee looking into campaign fund-raising abuses announced yesterday that Attorney General Janet Reno opposes a grant of immunity for a key witness, John Huang, in exchange for his appearance before the panel.
During the first day of testimony, in which a former finance director of the Democratic Party described pressure brought by the White House to hire Huang as a fund-raiser, senators acknowledged that Huang was central to their inquiry.
The panel is not bound by the Justice Department's recommendation. And the committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson, said the panel's lawyers would continue to negotiate with Huang's lawyer to determine precisely what the potential witness would offer as testimony.
But many on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee -- Republicans and at least one Democrat -- expressed reservations about granting Huang the partial immunity from criminal prosecution he is seeking. And several senators said they would be reluctant to defy Reno's wishes.
Thompson, of Tennessee, said he did not want the committee to be used "for absolving someone the Justice Department wants to prosecute for serious offenses."
Huang raised millions of dollars for the Democrats in 1995-1996 from the Asian-American community, nearly half of which had to be returned because of suspicious origins.
Republicans say they suspect Huang helped orchestrate a money-laundering scheme to raise millions of dollars in illegal foreign contributions for Democrats.
Huang is seeking immunity from prosecution for election-law violations, but not for criminal acts involving espionage or the disclosure of classified information.
Republicans have accused him of passing classified information from the Commerce Department on to the Lippo Group, the Indonesian banking conglomerate that formerly employed him.
"Put me down as skeptical of this grant of immunity," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. Campaign finance reform, Lieberman said, is one way to change the system.
"Another way is punishing the people who did wrong," he said.
The senior Democrat on the committee, John Glenn of Ohio, urged his colleagues to first find out what Huang would testify about before making a decision.
On the committee's second day of hearings, the lead witness, Richard Sullivan, a former finance director of the Democratic National Committee, gave Republicans no dazzling revelations about foreign influence or money laundering.
"I was never, and I emphasize never, confronted at the time with any evidence or suggestion of willful misconduct, foreign government influence, sale of office, contributions in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act or other legal problems of that kind," said Sullivan, 33.
But he helped Republicans establish that officials as high up as President Clinton -- as well as the billionaire head of Lippo -- had pressured the DNC to hire Huang as a fund-raiser.
Sullivan described a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington between DNC Chairman Don Fowler and the
wealthy banker, James Riady, who heads Lippo.
Huang, then a Commerce official, attended the September 1995 meeting. Sullivan, who was also there, described it as a "get to know you" meeting, and said there was no mention of moving Huang to the DNC.
Later that day, Republicans said, Riady met with Clinton at the White House.
Sullivan said that some time later, Harold Ickes, who was then a White House deputy chief of staff, twice called the DNC finance chairman Marvin Rosen about hiring Huang. "That's when Marvin acted on it," the witness said.
Sullivan also said that Rosen told him, after the 1996 election, that Clinton had asked "if [Rosen] had heard that John was interested in coming to the DNC."
Clinton was asked about Huang while in Madrid, Spain, yesterday and replied: "I believe that John Huang, at some point when I saw him in 1995, expressed an interest in going to work to help raise money for the Democratic Party, and I think I may have said to someone that he wanted to go to work at the DNC. I don't remember who I said that to."
Sullivan acknowledged that, after the hiring, he was nervous about Huang's lack of experience as a fund-raiser and insisted he receive briefings on election laws.
Sullivan said he also feared that Huang might try to solicit foreign money, which is illegal, partly because he had misgivings about another Chinese-American fund-raiser, Johnny Chung, who had mentioned Huang's name.
Chung, the witness said, "insinuated that he would make a contribution" if the DNC officer could get him and five Chinese businessmen into one of Clinton's Saturday radio broadcasts. Sullivan turned him down. But Chung succeeded through other means and later delivered a $50,000 check to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff that was passed on to the DNC.
In four hours of testimony -- Sullivan returns today for more questioning -- the former Democratic official bolstered Vice President Al Gore's contention that he did not know that an event he attended at a Buddhist temple in California was a fund-raiser. Sullivan said that Huang, who organized the event, had assured him it would not be a fund-raiser.
In the most explosive moments of the day, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, accused the witness of evading the truth when asked about the White House coffees for donors that yielded millions of dollars.
The coffees, attended by the president or vice president, have attracted scrutiny because federal law bars fund-raising on government property.
"The coffees helped us with our fund-raising, but they were not fund-raisers," Sullivan said.
After a series of similarly artful sentences, Domenici snapped: "For the first time since you've been here, I really believe you are skewing words calculated to confuse the issue. There is no doubt in my mind, the White House coffees were fund-raisers."
Pub Date: 7/10/97