Senate campaign hearings fail to match expectations But the seamier side of fund raising was clear

November 02, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In exploring the nexus of money and politics in the last election, the Senate investigating committee steered its inquiry from one unlikely site to another -- a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, a suburban home in Gaithersburg, a dog-racing track in Wisconsin, the White House Map Room.

Now that the hearings have concluded, the question emerges: Where did the committee end up?

The answer is a murky one. The 32 days of hearings pointed to a pattern of abuses, but they failed to stir much public interest or deliver the blockbuster punch of Watergate or Iran-contra.

The committee chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson, has been criticized even by fellow Republicans, who were disappointed that his team did not land harder blows on the Clinton administration or live up to its more dramatic goals.

The committee did not, for instance, provide evidence that the Chinese government tried to influence the presidential election, as Thompson promised; prove that President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore or any senior administration official broke any laws;or spark enough public outrage to compel lawmakers to pass campaign finance reform.

But as a defensive Thompson pointed out Friday, when he pulled the plug on the public hearings, his Governmental Affairs Committee can count a number of accomplishments.

"We should not measure ourselves in terms of scalps on the wall," he said.

The committee, for instance, turned up the heat on the Justice Department's own inquiry of campaign fund-raising abuses and escalated pressure on Attorney General Janet Reno to call for the appointment of an independent counsel.

The possibility of a special counsel now looms for four administration officials: Clinton, Gore, former Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

In addition, the committee's requests for information resulted in the discovery of potentially illuminating new material, such as White House videotapes that had been unknown to the Justice Department.

And, if nothing else, the committee presented a detailed picture of the seamier side of campaign fund-raising, revealing a campaign so hungry for cash that it turned a blind eye to possibly illegal conduct and zealously exploited loopholes in election laws.

In the end, the hearings created enough buzz about campaign finance reform that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott grudgingly agreed to schedule a floor debate on the issue in March.

"Thompson's committee has helped keep these matters alive in spite of the absence of bottom-up public demand for reform," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

Mann and others say the hearings failed to stir the public because Americans have become inured to political scandal and lack enough confidence in government to demand that it change.

"These hearings have not made a great dent in public attitudes, nor do I think they told us a lot we didn't already know about campaign finance," said Roger Davidson, a University of Maryland professor of government. "We knew it was a mess."

And while it offered a close view of that mess, the Senate's inquiry has left the administration unscathed. Clinton's popularity remained high throughout the hearings, dipping only slightly last month when the White House videotapes were released.

"It took people being able to see it on tape," said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster.

But overall, Goeas says, the hearings had only a marginal effect on the political landscape.

Short of the appointment of an independent counsel, even Gore -- who admitted that his appearance at a Buddhist temple fund-raiser was a mistake -- is unlikely to sustain serious damage, political strategists say.

In explaining his problems, Thompson has blamed the end-of-year deadline imposed by the Senate, coupled with a lack of cooperation from many key figures.

For example, John Huang and Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, Democratic fund-raisers who solicited about $2 million that had to be returned because of its possibly foreign origin, have either fled the country or pleaded the Fifth Amendment.

What's more, with time running out, a number of groups, such as the AFL-CIO, have ignored the committee's subpoenaes.

Here is what the committee did and did not achieve:

* Foreign influence and foreign money:

Most observers believe Thompson erred by opening the hearings with the audacious assertion that Beijing tried to influence the 1996 elections through illegal campaign donations.

The chairman later said the evidence to support that claim was contained in confidential intelligence reports that could not be made public. China has denied any attempt at influence.

The closest Republicans came to linking the Chinese government to the Clinton campaign was through James Riady. Riady, a longtime Clinton friend and a patron of Huang, heads an Indonesian banking conglomerate, the Lippo Group, that is a partner with the Chinese government.

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