WASHINGTON -- Former Democratic National Chairman Donald L. Fowler insisted in Senate testimony yesterday that he had no memory of calling the Central Intelligence Agency to plead the case of a $300,000 party donor, despite evidence to the contrary.
A CIA official identified only as "Bob" said Fowler phoned the agency twice in late 1995 on behalf of Roger Tamraz, an Egyptian-born New York businessman who was promoting an oil pipeline project in Central Asia.
According to CIA memos made public yesterday, the Democratic chairman was attempting to overcome White House objections to a meeting between Tamraz and Vice President Al Gore.
Fowler, who headed the Democratic Party from 1995 until earlier this year, testified repeatedly that he could not remember having any conversations with CIA officials about Tamraz. He stuck to his position even after seeing, for the first time, the internal CIA documents that gave details of the phone calls.
"I am very sensitive to the implications of perjury statutes," Fowler told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating campaign finance abuses in the 1996 election.
"But I have -- in the middle of the night, at high noon, late in the afternoon, early in the morning, at every hour of the day for months now -- searched my memory about conversations with the CIA, and I have no memory -- no memory -- of any conversations with the CIA."
Asked by Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, the committee chairman, if looking at the CIA memo helped refresh his memory, Fowler replied: "Not in the least."
Democrats later produced documents suggesting that Fowler may not have known that "Bob" was a CIA official. In a deposition, the CIA employee told Senate investigators that he was working undercover at the time and said he is "not sure Fowler knew who he was talking to" when he returned the CIA man's call.
Tamraz, 57, eventually managed, over the opposition of Clinton's national security advisers, to make it into the White House as a guest at four social functions. These included a private screening of "Independence Day," with President Clinton and others, and a dinner, at which Tamraz presented his pipeline idea to the president.
There is no evidence that Tamraz's lobbying efforts had any impact on administration policy, and his $2.5 billion pipeline was never built.
Justice Department probe
However, the Justice Department is investigating to see whether any laws were broken in connection with Tamraz's high-level attempts to influence U.S. policy.
Senators from both parties deplored the underlying theme of the Tamraz affair: the buying of access to top government officials.
"We allow somebody to give hundreds of thousands of dollars and gain access to the top of our government, which this man never would have had if he hadn't given that money," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat.
And Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the panel, noted that the chairman of the national Republican Party had sought a White House appointment for Tamraz in 1985, during President Ronald Reagan's administration.
"Mr. Tamraz has played both sides of the street here. I don't think there is any doubt of that," said Glenn.
Fowler, a longtime party activist from South Carolina, professed to repeated memory failures when confronted with documents related to Tamraz.
The documents made it clear that some Democratic officials had deep concerns, early in the campaign, about getting involved with the controversial businessman.
Fowler was advised by a DNC aide, in a July 12, 1995, briefing paper, that Tamraz's proposed $300,000 contribution, while "highly needed may generate considerable problems for the DNC. Pay attention to these warning signals!"
Fowler said he did not remember the memo but did recall a conversation with another staff member about Tamraz.
A week after the memo was written, Tamraz met with Fowler and gave $90,000 to the party. That was followed by a $50,000 donation in September 1995.
By that time, however, Tamraz's activities were drawing strong criticism from the White House. Gore's chief foreign policy adviser, in a Sept. 13 memo, advised the vice president not to meet with Tamraz, whom he described as having "a shady and untrustworthy reputation."
In response, Tamraz was "disinvited" from an Oct. 5 breakfast meeting with the vice president. On Oct. 6, Tamraz was in Fowler's office at party headquarters, complaining about "unfair" Whie House opposition to his pipeline plans.
His notes mention CIA
Fowler's handwritten notes from that meeting include the phrase "go to CIA" with "Bob's" name directly underneath. The notes also record Tamraz's wish to serve on one of the party's foreign affairs committees.
Less than two weeks later, Fowler sent a $75,000 donation from Tamraz to the Virginia Democratic Party. The same day, according to the CIA memo, Fowler called "Bob" and said he was trying to arrange a meeting between Gore and Tamraz.
"Bob" told Senate investigators that, at Tamraz's request, he had called Fowler first -- even though he didn't know who Fowler was -- and that Fowler had returned the call. "I'm not politically aware. I didn't realize he was a Democratic national chairman," the CIA official said.
Fowler says he has no recollection of their conversation, nor a subsequent one, in December, when, according to "Bob," Fowler called again, this time to request a letter that would "clear Tamraz's name with the president."
During the months that Tamraz was becoming a major party donor, Clinton's re-election strategists were embarking on an expensive early TV ad campaign.
That effort, which some have called the key to his re-election, cost between $12 million and $14 million, according to Fowler, whose job it was to raise the money.
Pub Date: 9/10/97