WASHINGTON -- Once again, a major congressional investigating committee is spinning its wheels over the advisability of granting a key witness immunity from prosecution if he agrees to sing, this time about what he knows regarding allegedly illegal campaign contributions in the 1996 election cycle.
John Huang, the former Commerce Department employee who moved over to the Democratic National Committee and raised millions for President Clinton's re-election, wants what his lawyer calls ''partial immunity.''
Because the Senate Government Affairs Committee may also want to ask Mr. Huang about possible engagement in economic espionage and misuse of certain classified government documents as well as his role as a campaign fund-raiser, his lawyer says his client is perfectly willing to respond on the former matters without immunity. But on the latter issue, he says, Mr. Huang feels he needs immunity because he may have crossed the line on occasion in the matter of intricate and tricky campaign finance regulations, and doesn't want to risk prosecution in that area.
''Partial immunity'' would protect him regarding his dealings as a campaign fund-raiser, in other words, but not in the other area, where he says he doesn't need it.
Just why the committee would agree to such an arrangement is a mystery, except perhaps to Sen. John Glenn, the ranking Democrat who is playing defender for his party in what he professes to see as a one-sided investigation led by Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, a Republican.
The Senate, and the country, had a snoutful of congressional immunity from prosecution in the Iran-contra hearings in 1987, wherein Reagan White House figures Oliver North and John Poindexter were extended it. Their subsequent convictions on charges growing out of their roles in the secret arms deals were thrown out by federal judges in 1990 on grounds that their immunized testimony had tainted the cases against them.
The appellate judges in Mr. North's case found that the trial judge had failed to insure that witnesses in his trial hadn't used Mr. North's immunized congressional testimony to refresh their memories or otherwise influence what they testified to.
Soaked in testimony
''A central problem in this case,'' the judges said, ''is that many grand jury and trial witnesses were thoroughly soaked in North's immunized testimony, but no effort was made to determine what effect, if any, this extensive exposure [in nationally televised hearings] had on their testimony.''
In 1991, the special prosecutor in the Iran-contra case, Lawrence Walsh, dropped his five-year investigation into Mr. North's activities, saying that the ''unique circumstances'' made it unlikely he could win a conviction. Later in the same year, Mr. Poindexter's convictions also were thrown out.
The dismissal of the charges against Mr. North, said Mr. Walsh, should be seen as a ''very, very serious warning that immunity is not to be granted lightly.'' He said he had urged Congress ''not to grant immunity, but they have the very broad political responsibility for making a judgment as to whether it's more important that the country hear the facts quickly or that they await a prosecution.''
No special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate the campaign-finance excesses of the 1996 election cycle, but a Justice Department unit has taken on the task, and it opposes granting of immunity to Mr. Huang. Senator Thompson said on a network panel show last weekend that ''there is no such thing as partial immunity. You either have to give total and complete immunity or not,'' and he has made clear he is of no mind to do so.
Another Republican senator, Arlen Specter, has argued, however, that Mr. Huang could first testify without immunity on matters not directly related to campaign finance and then, under immunity, discuss that area.
That's not likely to happen. Better, as Mr. Walsh said, to go without a key witness's testimony than surrender the chance to convict him if he's done wrong.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 7/16/97