WASHINGTON -- The Republican senator leading the inquiry into campaign fund-raising abuses lashed out at the Justice Department yesterday, saying he had lost confidence in the agency's parallel investigation and accusing it of impeding his committee's probe.
"I do not have confidence anymore in the Justice Department's ability to carry out a credible investigation," said Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.
Thompson's strong remarks came after Justice, which is conducting its own inquiry into fund-raising irregularities in the last election, opposed a request for immunity from prosecution for four Buddhist nuns whom the chairman hopes to call as witnesses.
Justice officials, who presented their position to the committee yesterday in a closed-door session, told the senators they opposed the immunity because it could interfere with their investigation, but they did not specify how, committee members said.
The nuns attended a 1996 Democratic fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles that featured Vice President Al Gore. In an apparent money-laundering scheme, impoverished monastics made contributions for which they were reimbursed. Much of the money has been returned by the Democratic Party because its source is unknown.
The committee has the authority to grant immunity to witnesses without the approval of the Justice Department. But Thompson needs a two-thirds majority -- which means the support of at least two Democrats -- and Democrats are less likely to agree if Justice is opposed.
The committee is to vote on the question today. Thompson said he did not know if he had the votes.
The testimony of the nuns is a politically sensitive issue because it relates to the activities of Gore, unlike nearly all previous testimony, which has focused on Democratic fund-raiser John Huang.
The nuns could provide some of the most colorful moments at congressional hearings that, so far, have attracted little television coverage. And their testimony could be embarrassing, even damaging, to Gore.
It is illegal to engage in political fund-raising at a religious site, and Gore has called his attendance at the temple event a "mistake."
Thompson, flanked by several Republican senators, told reporters he believed the Justice Department has a "clear conflict of interest" in its investigation into the activities of the Clinton administration. He said Justice officials, for political reasons, were deliberately blocking his inquiry by "dragging their feet" on immunity requests and by denying the panel important information.
"They have rung down the curtain on us," Thompson said.
Justice spokesman Bert Brandenburg said prosecutors have approved limited immunity for 11 of the 26 people for which the committee had requested it.
"It's incorrect for Senator Thompson to say we have not been processing his requests or that we have been objecting to immunity from a frivolous standpoint," said Brandenburg.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said he was considering court action to force such an appointment in light of what he called Reno's "flagrant abuse of discretion."
Thompson said a lawsuit was "an option" but added that time was a concern because the committee faces a Dec. 31 deadline.
Several legal experts said yesterday that the independent counsel statute does not provide for such intervention by the courts.
The senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, said he did not agree that Justice was stonewalling. "It's a rare prosecutor who wants to see immunity given when in the middle of a case," Glenn said. "I don't question their motives."
The committee, which spent the past two weeks exploring questionable fund raising by Democrats, shifts gears today with an examination of the National Policy Forum, a now-defunct think tank headed by former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour.
Democrats are seeking to show that Barbour solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Hong Kong business that was funneled to Republican campaigns in 1994 -- by way of the National Policy Forum.
Barbour is to testify tomorrow. He has denied improperly raising foreign money, saying the NPF was allowed to accept such funds because it was a policy group, not part of the Republican Party.
But Michael Baroody, the forum's former executive director, is expected to testify, possibly as early as today, about a memo he wrote to Barbour in which he called the distinction between the NPF and the Republican National Committee a "fiction."
Pub Date: 7/23/97