WASHINGTON -- In a day marked by shouting matches, bold accusations and rare apologies, Harold M. Ickes swatted back questions by the panel investigating campaign fund-raising abuses, sparking so much heat that senators were down to their shirtsleeves by day's end.
Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff and architect of President Clinton's re-election, acknowledged that he and other Democratic officials were like "mad hatters" in their zealous quest for campaign dollars.
But Ickes contended that while some of the administration's fund-raising practices may seem troubling, they fell within the bounds of the campaign finance laws.
Coming out swinging and primed for battle, the famously pugnacious lawyer declared the day's session "a taxpayer-financed game of gotcha as payback for our winning the election."
The committee chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, kicked off the questioning by trying to link President Clinton to an alleged illegal scheme between the Democratic Party and the Teamsters union.
Later, in an unusual move, Thompson apologized after documents surfaced that belied his accusation.
"I left the wrong impression," Thompson drawled after the White House produced records disputing his charge. "If you've got to eat any crow, or maybe even half a crow, it's better to do it warm than when it gets cold."
Across Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the long-delayed hearings in the House began, with the announcement that two Democratic figures who have already pleaded guilty to fund-raising violations are prepared to testify before the Government Reform and Oversight Committee in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who heads the committee, said that the couple, Gene and Nora Lum, would testify about misdeeds by the Clinton campaign that began in 1992.
Among other things, they are to testify the Clinton campaign provided a letter that endorsed the candidacy of the leader of an Asian nation in 1992. Then-Governor Clinton's name was signed to the letter by a campaign official.
In exchange for the letter, the Clinton campaign was given a $50,000 contribution that was possibly of foreign origin. Foreign donations are barred from U.S. political campaigns.
"The seeds of today's scandals may have been planted as early as 1991," Burton declared.
Ickes, in his second day before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, gave the Republicans no ground as he defended the administration's fund-raising with his trademark acid tongue.
In an especially testy exchange with Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, Ickes made sure he had the last word.
Collins asked whether he had intervened with a Cabinet official on behalf of a wealthy donor. Ickes denied that he had.
"I think the message is very clear," Collins said. "If you give enough money to the DNC, you're at least going to get access to political appointees or the president or the vice president. Perhaps you'll even get more."
"And if you give enough money to Republican senators, you'll get access, too!" Ickes shot back with a self-satisfied grin.
Ickes also was questioned about his advice to R. Warren Meddoff, who said he knew a donor who wanted to make a $5 million contribution to Clinton's re-election and reap a tax deduction, even though political donations are not tax-deductible.
Ickes faxed Meddoff a list of tax-exempt groups to which the donor could send the money.
Meddoff testified last month that Ickes told him to destroy the memo, an allegation that Ickes denied yesterday.
"I did not urge him to destroy the document," an irate Ickes declared.
Noting that Ickes did not turn over to the committee his original copy of the memo, Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, suggested Ickes made the document "disappear."
"Obviously, we're talking about obstruction of justice," Nickles charged.
Ickes turned to Thompson and railed: "The senator is alleging obstruction of justice. I think I should have an opportunity to give a full explanation. I don't take charges of obstruction of justice lightly."
Ickes said he never had the original document because he dictated the memo from Air Force One to the White House. An aide then faxed it to Meddoff.
Thompson's apology came after a round of fireworks in which the lawyer for the committee Democrats, Alan Baron, accused ** the chairman of "disingenuousness," provoking Thompson's ire.
"If staff makes another reference to 'disingenuousness' by members of this committee, there's going to be some hell to pay," Thompson threatened.
And he and the panel's senior Democrat, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, sparred so bitterly over subpoenas issued by the committee that they couldn't bear to look at each other when they spoke. They later made light of their squabble.
Thompson's unsuccessful line of questioning started with a document he produced relating to Martin Davis, a consultant to Ron Carey's re-election campaign as president of the Teamsters.
Davis pleaded guilty last month to taking part in a conspiracy between the Democratic Party and the Teamsters involving a swap of campaign contributions.
The document produced by Thompson suggested that Davis, along with two Democratic campaign officials, met with Clinton in the White House on June 17, 1996.
Four days later, at the request of the Democratic National Committee, the union donated $236,000 to state Democratic parties.
Prosecutors allege that, in exchange for the contribution, the party would find a donor to contribute $100,000 to Carey's re-election.
The White House quickly produced a memo showing that Davis and the two Democrats were at the White House not for a private meeting with Clinton but rather as part of a larger donors' luncheon with the president.
Lanny J. Davis, a White House special counsel, said, "The president did not have a private meeting with Mr. Davis that day."
He acknowledged that Martin Davis had also been at the White House in May 1996 but said he did not know for what purpose.
In light of the memo, Thompson backed off his accusation, saying he had not known of the White House document, although it had been in his committee's files.
"Clearly, it makes a difference whether this was a private meeting," he said. "I was under the impression it was."
But, Thompson said, "the question still remains as to what they were doing there, what they were talking about, what side bars they may have had."
Asked about the scheme, Ickes said he knew "nothing about any conspiracy," and wouldn't know Martin Davis "if he came in here and sat on my lap."
In a related development, Lanny Breuer, a senior White House lawyer, spent the morning testifying before a federal grand jury about why presidential aides failed to turn over videotapes of White House coffees involving Clinton and major donors.
The Justice Department became aware of the White House tapes over the weekend after Attorney General Janet Reno had concluded that there was no need for an independent prosecutor to investigate Clinton's activities at the coffees.
Pub Date: 10/09/97