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House Oversight May Get Clinton Fundraising Probe After Burton Brouhaha

By Jackie Koszczuk, CQ Staff Writer

Major portions of the House investigation into alleged campaign fundraising abuses by President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign could be taken over by the House Oversight Committee now that the probe has stalemated in the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.

The unusual decision by Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to propose letting another committee handle the high-profile investigation came after an especially rancorous session of Burton's panel on April 23. Democrats, enraged at Burton's description of Clinton as a "scumbag," refused to go along with the chairman's request for immunity for four witnesses.

Burton said later that he "did not want" to transfer authority to Oversight Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., but that "was the only way" to get around the Democrats' obstructions. He added that he and Thomas will work together and that his own committee would retain the right to issue a final report this fall.

But Thomas said in a statement that no power transfer has been agreed to yet and that he is "reviewing his options." Thomas wants assurances that his panel would be able to act independently and would not have to take orders from Burton, a key GOP aide said.

Although Republicans have a majority on the Government Reform committee, they lack the two-thirds required to grant immunity. The immunity proposal failed April 23 when the panel voted 21-19 along party lines.

To avoid future hang-ups, Gingrich wants to let Thomas' Oversight panel handle the immunity issue. Oversight is a Speaker-controlled committee split 6-3 in favor of Republicans, which should make two-thirds GOP votes automatic. The panel also would depose immunized witnesses and hold hearings.

The shift would solve another problem for GOP leaders by easing growing Republican unhappiness over Burton and his investigation, according to a top GOP leadership aide. House Republicans have complained that Burton is spending a lot of money but adding little to what a similar Senate probe uncovered. (CQ Weekly, p. 724)

Burton vs. Clinton

The latest round of feuding on the panel was sparked by Burton's harsh description of the president and by his decision to release transcripts of telephone conversations former Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell had while serving a federal prison term for tax evasion and mail fraud.

Regarding Clinton, Burton said in an interview with the Indianapolis Star/News published April 16, "If I could prove 10 percent of what I believe happened, he'd be gone. The guy's a scumbag. That's why I'm after him."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the Burton panel, called the remark "vile and repugnant" and said it showed that Burton cannot be objective about Clinton. Waxman said he may ask the full House to either censure Burton or remove him as chairman.

Burton acknowledged that he could have "used more diplomatic language," but he said his remarks were prompted by frustration that 90 potential witnesses to Democratic fundraising efforts have refused to cooperate with the committee's investigation. His feelings would not interfere with his official actions as chairman, he said.

As part of its investigation, Burton's committee has been looking into whether the Lippo Group, an Indonesian firm with ties to the president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and to controversial Democratic fundraiser John Huang, made payments to Hubbell to keep him from cooperating with Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's probe into the Clintons' involvement in the Whitewater land deal.

Committee investigators say they found that Hubbell received $700,000 from Clinton friends and supporters at a time he was being pressured by Starr to cooperate in that probe. That amount is about $200,000 more than previous revelations of payments to Hubbell, which Burton and other Clinton critics have characterized as hush money.

Burton's committee also subpoenaed the Justice Department for Hubbell's jailhouse phone conversations, which are routinely taped in federal prison. Under the Privacy Act, the department cannot disclose information on the tapes to anyone except members of Congress, who are themselves not bound by the no-release restriction.

Waxman said most of the 295 audio tapes are personal conversations between Hubbell, his wife, children and friends. Some are with his attorneys. He said Burton's plan to make them public is pointless and "cruel," designed to punish Hubbell for invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination when committee investigators sought to interview him.

Burton said he plans to release the transcripts as soon as the week of April 27 because "the American people have the right to know the facts."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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Saturday April 25, 1998

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