Donor tells senators $300,000 bought him access to Clinton Industrialist is at center of campaign-fund scandal

September 19, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Democratic donor Roger E. Tamraz says that he's been kidnapped by Lebanese suicide bombers. He's been beaten and tortured and poisoned.

He's been arrested in a former Soviet republic, had a billion dollars of his assets seized and staged clandestine meetings with foreign heads of state.

So when the international businessman ran into trouble getting a meeting with President Clinton on a pipeline project he was promoting, the obstacle was minor.

Tamraz, a central figure in the campaign fund-raising controversy, simply took out his checkbook and made some big contributions -- $300,000 -- to the Democrats.

Tamraz, the son of a self-made Lebanese millionaire, kept listeners on the edge of their seats yesterday during hearings that jumped from one world capital to another but provided the most insight into the ways of Washington.

The Egyptian-born financier -- whom the National Security Council had tried to keep away from the president because of a "shady and untrustworthy reputation" -- shrugged his shoulders when senators tried to heap abuse on him for being in the middle of the influence-peddling scandal.

Tamraz, 57, a U.S. citizen who lives in New York City, explained that he was merely playing by the rules of Washington in buying access to politicians -- Democrats and Republicans alike.

Tamraz also described the jockeying inside the White House by those seeking Clinton's ear.

"You think when you get into the White House you've won," he said. "The fight begins when you get into the White House. Then there's the guerrilla fight to get close to the president.

"The same handlers that get you into the White House are sure, once you get in, that you don't get the chance to get what you want."

Those were minor obstacles, however, to an international player such as Tamraz.

"I think you were hustling and I think you were being hustled at the same time," said Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who got Tamraz to acknowledge that getting access was the "only reason" he gave so much money.

Tamraz got into the White House six times, including one session in which he plugged his project to the president.

Despite earlier rejections of his pipeline venture by administration foreign policy experts, Tamraz persuaded Clinton it was worth a fresh look.

Clinton told senior adviser Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty to review Tamraz's plan for building an oil pipeline from the Caspian basin fields of Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean Sea.

McLarty later met with Tamraz and then called Kyle Simpson, a senior Energy Department official, about Tamraz's plan. That set into motion a series of telephone conversations that senators have still not sorted out.

Wednesday, National Security Council staffer Sheila Heslin told how she came under pressure -- from officials at the Energy Department, the Democratic National Committee and the CIA -- to change her opinion of Tamraz and allow him to meet with Clinton.

She said a CIA agent lobbied her on Tamraz's behalf and an Energy Department official, Jack Carter, told her Tamraz was expected to give $400,000 to the DNC. Her account came under heavy criticism yesterday.

Carter testified that he never pressured Heslin, although he did acknowledge that he brought up Tamraz's contributions. He said his colleague Simpson briefed him about Tamraz's donations.

But Simpson, who also testified yesterday, vehemently denied that he told Carter any such thing.

"There is only one conclusion that can be drawn here, and that's that one of you is lying," Republican Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire told the men.

The dispute is important because GOP investigators believe that McLarty told Simpson about Tamraz's financial support, which would be an unseemly blending of partisan politics with policy.

McLarty has denied mentioning anything, or even knowing anything, about Tamraz's donations when he spoke to Simpson.

Tamraz said he knew nothing about all the political jockeying he had set into motion. But he does believe he got his money's worth.

Asked by Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut whether he feels bad about donating $300,000 when his oil pipeline never did win White House backing, Tamraz quipped: "Next time I'll give $600,000."

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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