WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich moved yesterday to shift key parts of an investigation of Democratic fund-raising away from the control of Rep. Dan Burton, whose zealous efforts to damage President Clinton have embarrassed and irritated fellow Republicans.
Another round of partisan finger-pointing in Burton's Government Reform and Oversight Committee ended yesterday with Democrats refusing to grant immunity to four potential witnesses to alleged campaign finance abuses.
The Democratic committee members had earlier failed in their effort to remove the Indiana Republican from the helm of the campaign finance investigation. But they plan as early as today to force that issue to a vote on the House floor.
The stalemate almost certainly means that by the end of the week, Gingrich will shift much of the campaign finance investigation to the House Oversight Committee. In that committee, Republicans enjoy the two-thirds majority needed to override Democratic opposition and grant witnesses immunity from prosecution.
A Republican source involved in the investigation said that Burton's chief counsel, Baltimore lawyer Richard D. Bennett, has already spoken with Gingrich about leading the changeover.
The move will sharply elevate the profile of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, one of only three Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, and relieve Republicans of the growing internal discord sowed by Burton's missteps.
Burton has been a lightning rod for criticism since he began leading his committee's investigation last year. The situation exploded last month, after he called Clinton a "scumbag," declared that he was "out to get" the president and released tapes of Clinton's friend Webster L. Hubbell's prison phone conversations, selectively edited to frame Hubbell's statements in the most incriminating light.
Hoyer indicated that the partisan rancor that dogged Burton's committee was unlikely to dissipate simply because control of the investigation will now be transferred from the fiery Burton to Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
Hoyer suggested that Thomas, while more diplomatic, is nevertheless a highly partisan Republican.
The issue, Hoyer said, is whether the Republicans will include the Democratic minority in a fair and bipartisan inquiry.
"If the speaker sends it to our committee just to roll the Democrats, we will continue to have these kinds of problems," Hoyer said.
"The reason these investigations have broken down so completely is that they are simply for making political points and skewering the Clinton administration. Our role will be to show this is not a fair-hearing process."
For his part, Gingrich continued his assault on Clinton, showing no indication that a new committee will start with a clean, nonpartisan plate.
Gingrich said after the stalement on the Burton panel he will move much of the investigation to a committee where Republicans would have the vote to grant immunity.
"We will do everything we have to do to ensure the American people know the laws have been broken," Gingrich said. "Given the Democrats' refusal to allow witnesses to testify about crimes, we will have to find a way."
Burton's hearing yesterday followed a familiar pattern.
The chairman delivered a blustery speech, accusing Democrats of funneling millions of dollars of illegal campaign contributions from foreign donors, then covering up the evidence through stonewalling and obfuscation.
Democrats, led by Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, dished out reams of documents to try to defuse the charges, and then accused Burton of conducting a partisan witch hunt. Burton simply ignored Waxman's call for a vote to unseat him from the campaign finance investigation.
Then each side accused the other of turning a serious investigation of wrongdoing into a circus.
Referring to Republican assertions of Democratic stonewalling, Paul E. Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, quipped: "The entire committee should be holding its meetings in a chamber with padded walls. We're starting to embarrass the American people."
Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican, fired back, "Machiavelli would be proud of the obstructive and subversive tactics employed by the [Democratic] members of the panel and the executive branch."
With his committee in meltdown, Burton said he "had no choice" but to recommend that the Thomas' committee assume responsibility for immunizing and questioning four witnesses: Kent La, Irene Wu, Nancy Lee and Larry Wong. More witnesses are expected to follow that group.
Thomas said he had presented Republican leaders with a framework for how he would like to conduct the investigation and that he expects a decision by the end of the week on how the next stage of the inquiry will be conducted.
Republican sources involved in the investigation said Thomas is uncomfortable with sharing any aspects of the investigation with Burton and is pushing for complete control of the inquiry.
A defiant Burton vowed to retain some parts of an investigation that appears to be winding down. He hopes to hold at least two more hearings by July, before drafting an interim report on campaign finance abuses that would be released before the November elections, in time to try to weaken Democratic candidates.
Pub Date: 5/14/98