WASHINGTON -- Sen. Fred Thompson, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said yesterday that the first phase of hearings on campaign finance abuses has laid the groundwork for a circumstantial case that the Chinese government sought to influence the 1996 election.
"Clearly there has been no proof that the Chinese government is sending money from their treasury over here [but] there is circumstantial evidence that raises serious questions," the Tennessee Republican said.
After four weeks of hearings, several key players were eager yesterday to put things in perspective. Their views, however, differed markedly.
Democrats called Thompson's case weak and said the clear message of the hearings is that both political parties received foreign money in 1996 and that the campaign finance system itself is a mess.
It was Thompson who raised the specter of a Chinese plot in his July 9 statement that opened the hearings. In dramatic remarks, he announced that China had devised a plan to illegally influence last year's elections, including the presidential contest.
The remarks have haunted him since.
Democrats immediately accused Thompson of exaggerating the intelligence data. And the alleged plot now looms over all aspects of the proceedings, with every piece of evidence judged on whether it proves the plot.
Still, Thompson insists that the hearings, scheduled to resume in September, have revealed clear-cut illegalities and will continue to bear fruit.
"We've kind of gotten to the point where if you don't have a signed confession or John Dean [a central figure in the Watergate case] then it's kind of a failure," he told reporters. "I don't think ultimately that's the way it will be."
Democrats concede that their party's fund-raising practices veered sharply from what is legal. But they taunt Thompson for not proving any Chinese plot.
"I don't think there's any doubt that there was a lot of illegal money floating around the campaign," Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio said yesterday. "We knew that going in."
But the push to tie the White House to illegal Chinese activity is off the mark, he said.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan agreed, saying: "The early statement of the chairman that there was evidence he saw that the Chinese government put money into the presidential race cast a long shadow on this first month. They produced no evidence to support that."
Democrats argue that the one thing that has been proven in the first month is that the fund-raising system is a mess.
"The American political system is on a rising and uncontrollable spiral of financial thirst," said Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who is a prodigious fund-raiser himself. "It may or may not ever be proven that there was a Chinese conspiracy to influence these elections, but it is already clear that the system has invited such illegal participation by the demand for campaign funds.
"The American campaign finance system has been an accident waiting to happen for years," Torricelli said.
In September, when senators return from a monthlong recess, the committee plans to pick up the pace of the hearings.
Pub Date: 8/02/97