Senate campaign probe began with bang, ends with whimper Its authority expires at midnight, leaving a mixed legacy

December 31, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- No more investigative jaunts to Asia. No more subpoenas or closed-door interrogations. No more hearings stretching from morning until night.

The Senate's campaign fund-raising probe is dead.

At its peak, it was the biggest show in town -- with bustling office suites near the Capitol, a small army of lawyers and truckloads of evidence to pore over.

But at the stroke of midnight tonight, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigation will officially turn out the lights. Filing cabinets are being cleared out. The sleuths are moving on to less attention-getting pursuits.

The investigation will leave a mixed legacy, say those who conducted the probe, those who were its targets and those who watched from the sidelines.

Virtually all agree that although Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the committee, honed his skills as a young investigator in the Watergate probe of the Nixon administration, this was no Watergate.

After 32 days of hearings, 418 subpoenas, 196 depositions and testimony from 70-plus witnesses, nobody has gone to jail, no laws have been changed and no public outcry has surfaced.

"It certainly wasn't a blockbuster set of hearings," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington who testified before the committee as an expert on campaign finance reform.

But, says Mann, "the jury is still out" on the impact of the hearings, given that criminal prosecutions are still possible and campaign finance reform legislation will again be pushed in Congress in 1998.

"I think [the 1996 campaign] will be remembered as the year the regulatory regime for campaign finance collapsed," Mann said. "That was well-reported in the media, but the Thompson committee provided an official forum to register that collapse."

At Common Cause, officials welcomed the attention the Senate hearings generated for an issue that the nonprofit group had been struggling to publicize for years.

"History will look on this investigation kindly because it painted a picture and gave a human face to what has been a very serious but abstract problem," said Ann McBride, Common Cause's president. "Who can forget Roger Tamraz?"

For those who have, Tamraz was the controversial oilman who admitted in his testimony that he contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democrats during the 1996 campaign to pitch an overseas pipeline project directly in the president's ear.

Tamraz boasted in his testimony of his White House access: "If they keep me out of the door, I'll come through the window."

Although his shady reputation -- including an Interpol warrant for his arrest -- was publicized during the hearings, Tamraz considers the exposure he received so invaluable that he is toying with the idea of becoming a politician himself.

The White House, which took a beating during the hearings for sloppy fund-raising practices, is not eager to review the Senate panel's final report on its investigation of campaign funds.

"We have very little interest in the committee's majority report since we know this is a partisan exercise with not even a pretense of evenhandedness," said Lanny J. Davis, the White House special counsel.

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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