Pulling the Plug

SENATOR FRED THOMPSON'S campaign-finance probe finally struck media pay dirt with last week's blockbuster testimony about the selling of White House access and influence to fugitive oil financier Roger Tamraz. Sheila Heslin, then-director of the National Security Council's Central Asia desk, testified that for months she fought to keep Tamraz from getting an "official" meeting with Bill Clinton to pitch his Caspian oil project. In return, she was subjected to an obscene barrage of pressure from the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the CIA, and political appointees at the Department of Energy. With tears in her eyes, Heslin testified how senior Energy aide Jack Carter berated her for her opposition to the meeting, saying, "Mack McClarty wants it, and the president wants it."

Carter had been working with McClarty-Clinton's boyhood chum and former chief of staff on putting together oil deals in Latin America. (McClarty--formerly head of the Arkansas energy giant ARKLA--is special counselor to Clinton for the region, a role in which he has been carrying water for the Big Oil interests.) Carter testified that he'd been inspired to nag Heslin by his boss at Energy, Kyle Simpson, who got his job by heading fundraising for the '92 Clinton-Gore campaign in Houston, where he collected campaign cash from the Texas oil barons. Simpson, of course, claimed amnesia about it all.

Heslin, a career NSC officer, was rightly praised by both Democratic and Republican senators for having successfully resisted the political pressure on behalf of Tamraz. But as Tamraz--who is wanted by Interpol in a $200 million Lebanese bank-fraud case--later testified, "If you kick me from the door, I go in through the window." Clinton and his cronies saw Tamraz, who gave the Democrats $300,000 in '95-'96, as a cash cow--and documents show that Tamraz was able to buy the access he wanted in the form of six White House visits arranged by the DNC. Most damning was an April '96 memo from McClarty to the president reporting that "per your direction" he'd had a "nice visit" with Tamraz, who was "pleased at your interest" in his oil pipeline, and promising the president to "follow up in a supportive, but prudent and appropriate way."

With evidence like this, Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to stall another three months before deciding whether to ask for an independent counsel to investigate the president's fundraising activities is simply inexcusable. In keeping the investigation of the man who appointed her under her protective wing, Reno is in a conflict of interest that the independent-counsel statute was specifically designed to avoid. Moreover, the way in which she is conducting her so-called "preliminary investigation" of both Clinton and Al Gore leaves doubt that it will be vigorously pursued. To head the probe she's named one Charles LaBella, who in the 1980s prosecuted Imelda Marcos on charges of laundering looted billions from the Philippine treasury. He produced a case so weak that Imelda was acquitted without the defense having to present a single witness.

LaBella's principal qualification for the campaign-cash investigation appears to be a recommendation from his previous boss, San Diego U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin--who just happens to be a Rhodes Scholar classmate of Clinton's at Oxford and his classmate at Yale Law School (not to mention that he was also Gore's classmate at Harvard). One can infer from this sponsorship that the White House considers LaBella politically reliable.

Meanwhile, the decision by Senate Democrats to join the GOP in abruptly canceling the remaining investigative hearings into Donorgate shows that the leadership of both parties just doesn't want the systemic corruption of big money in politics exposed. Or else voters might demand more than the palliative "reform" bill introduced by John McCain and Russell Feingold.

McCain/Feingold bans big soft-money donations only to national party committees--but not to state parties. Half of the money Roger Tamraz gave to get the president's ear was directed by the DNC to the parties in Virginia and Mississippi and would still be legal if McCain/Feingold passes. McCain wants to run for president as a "reformer," and Feingold is in trouble in his home-state polls. Both are desperate to pass a law with their names on it, which is why they've now agreed to further water down their feeble legislation by dropping new restrictions on PACs and a proposal for free television time.

McCain/Feingold is now so ineffectual it's worse than no bill at all, for it will take the steam out of the movement for structural reform. That's why the best hope for getting special-interest money out of politics is for reactionary GOP senator Mitch McConnell to follow through on his promise and filibuster it to death. If he kills the loophole-ridden bill, real reformers can live to fight another day.

 
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