Senate Campaign Finance Hearings Zero In On Gore
Aired September 5, 1997 - 10:00 a.m. ET
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We now turn to this big story here in Washington and that is the campaign finance hearings on Capitol Hill. In just a few minutes, we are going to go to this room, a hearing room for the Senate committee investigation fundraising abuses in the last presidential campaign. As you can see, the room is beginning to fill up with the members of that committee.
After a month long recess, the committee reconvened yesterday and immediately zeroed in on Vice President Al Gore. On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that it is taking the first step that could lead to appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Mr. Gore's fundraising activities.
Yesterday, Thursday, senators heard testimony from three nuns at a California Buddhist Temple.
As CNN's Candy Crowley reports, the event there was only one of many excesses that grew out of Republican victories three years ago.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Having lost control of Congress in '94, the Democratic National Committee was hot to raise money, so hot critics charge, the DNC didn't care whether donations were legal. Democrats admit only to a system which broke down
RICHARD SULLIVAN, FMR. DNC FINANCE DIRECTOR: I can't tell you the reasons of why the formal system seemed to atrophy somewhat. That -- I don't know why.
CROWLEY: Atrophy begat a trio of trouble for the DNC. Fundraiser John Huang: head of A U.S.-based firm in 1992 that donated $50,000, Huang later asked his Indonesian parent company, LIPPO, for reimbursement.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CMTE.: It certainly looks like the movement of foreign money into an American campaign in 1992.
CROWLEY: In '96, Huang raised $3.4 million. The DNC returned almost half as suspect, including money from a controversial event at a Buddhist temple.
California businessman Johnnie Chung: a big donor who often visited the White House. Chung once gave $50,000 to the DNC.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CMTE.: It is apparent that the source of the $50,000 check to the Democratic National Committee, came from the funds which were deposited to his account, from the transfer from the Bank of China.
CROWLEY: Shortly after handing the check to a member of the first lady's staff, Chung brought a group of Chinese businessmen to the White House.
One time Little Rock restaurateur Charlie Trie: Trie was responsible for more than $200,000 in DNC donations, all returned as questionable. Senate investigators turned up records indicating Trie was largely bankrolled by a wealthy overseas business partner.
SEN. BOB SMITH (R), GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CMTE.: Does that sound like money laundering to you?
JERRY CAMPANE, FBI SPECIAL AGENT: It's what we call in the business a slam-dunk, senator.
CROWLEY: Republicans also took a couple of lumps as panel Democrats used their allotted week to dissect the complicated loan deal. Backed by a Hong Kong businessman, the $2.1 million loan went to a Republican think tank, which used the money to repay a loan from the RNC.
SEN. JOHN GLENN (D), RANKING MINORITY MEMBER: That came from Hong Kong, we know it did and we can dance on the technicalities of this but it came in. It was foreign money and that is it.
CROWLEY (on-camera): So far, the committee had collected a number of troubling dots, without a line to connect them. The most significant facts remain those we don't have. Were Trie and Chung and Huang simply ambitious businessmen, exploiting a porous system to buy influence? or was something more sinister at play? Judy.
WOODRUFF: All right, Candy Crowley, there in the hearing room.
As you can see just behind Candy, these are attorneys for the majority the minority, who are there, getting ready. The senators are just beginning to trickle into the room. We know that, typically, Senator Fred Thompson, the chairman of committee, likes to get started on time. So we assume, that in just a few minutes, this committee will be getting underway.
John Huang, who was the Democratic fundraiser Candy just mentioned, also played a role yesterday, when the Senate hearings resumed.
But as our moneytrail correspondent Brooks Jackson tells us, the main target for this Republican-led committee was a much bigger fish: the vice president of the United States.
BROOKS JACKSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was almost too easy for Senate Republicans beating up Al Gore.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN (R), GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CMTE.: Somebody said a photograph is more that words or a 1,000 words.
JACKSON: The vice president, offering flowers to Buddha. Photos galore, from the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple last year. The event, organized by Democratic fundraisers John Huang and Maria Hsia, both now under criminal investigation on suspicion of illegal fundraising.
Three temple nuns testified at Thursday's hearing. Confessing, under immunity from federal prosecution, they helped launder $65,000 in apparently illegal donations to the Democrats. And they revealed an attempted cover-up.
LIEBERMAN: This testimony, today, I must say, I've found in large part very perplexing and troubling.
JACKSON: Two of the nuns said they altered some documents, and destroyed others.
VENERABLE MAN HO, HSI LAI TEMPLE: I'm afraid that the document might cause embarrassment to the temple.
JACKSON: Plenty of embarrassment for Gore, though nobody suggested he knew about the illegalities. But even raising legal money in a temple, raises questions of good taste, not to mention tax laws.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CMTE.: You cannot hold fundraising events at churches or temples, or other tax-exempt organizations.
JACKSON: Gore now admits the whole thing was a mistake, but claims nobody told him any money was being raised. Some are skeptical.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R), GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CMTE.: It seems like everyone around him knew it was a fund-raiser, from what I can tell. But perhaps we'd give him the benefit of the doubt.
JACKSON: Indeed, in this memo, Gore's own scheduler was told by Huang, the temple event was a "fundraising lunch," and Gore's national security adviser called it a fundraising lunch, too, in this e-mail message.
Gore, himself, stayed far away from Thursday's hearing, staying busy being vice-presidential.
(on-camera): The temple fiasco may not be Gore's biggest problem. The Justice Department has just begun reviewing the legality of those dozens of fundraising calls he made from his White House office. That could eventually lead to appointment of an independent counsel and a full-blown criminal investigation -- Judy.
WOODRUFF: All right, Brooks Jackson, standing outside the Capitol.
We could see, we can see, on another monitor we are looking at here in studio this hearing is about to begin. While we wait for it to begin, Brooks let me ask you, so many of the witnesses this committee has wanted to get testimony from, have refused to cooperate. How difficult was it for them to get these Buddhist nuns to come before them yesterday?
JACKSON: Well, Judy that is a good question, because it required the granting of immunity from criminal prosecution. The nuns, as many other witnesses, have invoked their Fifth Amendment privilege. They are refusing -- They refused to testify on grounds that it might incriminate them.
In order to force them to testify, under subpoena, the Senate had to of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee had to vote to grant them immunity from prosecution and that's what they did.
WOODRUFF: Otherwise, we can assume, they wouldn't have come?
JACKSON: We know they would not have come. They were refusing to come. They didn't want to be there. They were forced to be there under subpoena. Had they not had the grant of immunity, they could have refused to testify, under the Fifth Amendment, but having granted them that immunity, the Senate could force them to testify, and that is what they did.
WOODRUFF: Brooks, if you would continue to stand by there, I want to go back to Candy Crowley, our Senate correspondent, who is there in the hearing room on the Senate building.
Candy, David Strauss, we understand, is scheduled to be the first witness before the committee.
CROWLEY: Yes, Judy, he is the former deputy chief of staff for the vice president. So they are going to continue along the same vein that they started yesterday.
Basically, I think, you can expect that the Republicans will want to know from Strauss what you heard from Pete Domenici in Brooks' spot, which was there was e-mail, which called this event at the temple a fundraiser, there were staffers who said they thought it was fundraiser, and the vice president says he thought it was an outreach event. So they want to delve a little more into that. Also talk a little more about the machinations leading up to the event, how it came to be.
WOODRUFF: Candy, do we know why they chose David Strauss? Evidently, there are a number of other people who worked on Gore's staff who had some familiarity with the scheduling of this Buddhist temple event. Why him?
CROWLEY: They call him an overview witness. They say the -- one of the investigators said, look, there are a number of people we could
have called here, but rather than call a large panel and say what did you know what did you know, what did you know, they picked some one that they thought could give them an overview of what the rest of the staff knew.
WOODRUFF: Candy, just as the committee was about to take a recess at the end of the day, yesterday, one of the Democratic senators, I believe it was Carl Levin, was trying to urge Fred Thompson, the Republican chairman of committee, to call yet another member of the Gore staff, as a minority witness, what was that all about?
CROWLEY: Well, you can rest assured, that the witness the minority wanted to call, would have buttressed Vice President Gore's version of the story. This happens from time to time. Democrats saying "oh, you are just calling the witnesses that are saying what you want them to say or leading us in direction you want us to be led." But there are other witnesses who say otherwise, and that is what this was about. And the chairman's response, the Republican chairman Fred Thompson was, look, when you all have your week you are free to call anyone you want, and we are going to call who we want.
WOODRUFF: Indeed, the Democrats will get their week, what is it the third week, after these hearings begin?
CROWLEY: That is when it is expected, yes.
WOODRUFF: All right, Candy Crowley, Brooks Jackson, all of us will be continuing to stand by, as we look at the hearing room, it is not quite ready to get underway. We will continue to keep an eye, and as we do we'll take a break. We'll be back.
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