Cleaning House

THE FRENCH LIKE to say they have "la droite la plus bête du monde," the stupidest Right in the world. But that dubious honor went to Washington's Republicans last week, as the attempted coup against Newt Gingrich drove the campaign-finance hearings out of the headlines. A lot of the blame for the failure of the attempt to dump Newt as Speaker is assigned by House GOPers to their majority leader, Texan Dick Armey, who was perfectly prepared to join it when he thought he would replace Gingrich, but who walked away and ratted to Newt when he found out the plotters preferred Bill Paxon of Buffalo. The real reason that the coup's organizers didn't want Armey has appeared nowhere in anything I've read: They feel Armey has a serious drinking problem, and the hard-right moralizers who instigated the attempted political decapitation were loathe to replace one scandal-prone Speaker with another.

Meanwhile, the largely tame and lazy Beltway press corps has bought into the White House's spin on the Thompson hearings: that they're boring and have revealed nothing new. Now, congressional hearings aren't supposed to be entertainment, and it's worth remembering that after the first three days of the Watergate hearings, the Washington Post ran a front-page headline declaring, "Watergate: Not Exactly High Drama." But even though the current campaign-finance inquiry requires a lot of sitzfleisch --a wonderful Yiddish word that means the ability to stay sitting on one's duff for hours--in order to follow the details, in their plodding way the Thompson hearings have elicited much new info illustrating how the corporate takeover of the Democratic Party led by Bill Clinton sold access and jobs in its orgy of greed for campaign cash.

We have learned, for example, that John Huang, the Lippo group's million-dollar bonus boy, was hired at the Commerce Department on the insistence of the White House and corrupt Commerce Secretary (and former DNC chairman) Ron Brown, despite the fact that his immediate boss didn't want him. "From the beginning, I thought he was totally unqualified, and my opinion never changed," testified Jeffrey Garten, who was the Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade in 1994-95 (now head of the Yale Business School).

While we knew that Lippo's largesse to Clinton (which dates back to Arkansas) was the motive for Huang's appointment, we have now learned that Huang's money-laundering went back at least to the '92 Clinton campaign. Documents show that Huang requested reimbursement from Lippo headquarters in Jakarta for a $50,000 contribution that year to the DNC Victory Fund--the first of some $800,000 in Lippo contributions to the DNC and clearly illegal under current law. We've also learned that Huang channeled hundreds of thousands in laundered Lippo contributions to state Democratic parties in $50,000 and $75,000 chunks (thus underscoring once again the toothless character of the McCain-Feingold campaign-reform bill, which would leave soft money contributions like these perfectly legal).

And we've learned that, despite Clinton's denials, corporate access to the White House on policy matters was sold to corporate givers by the Clinton team. The Thompson hearings demonstrated that Hong Kong billionaire businessman (and British citizen) Eric Hotung bought himself a meeting with then-Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to discuss China policy for a $100,000 contribution to the DNC. A letter to the White House from DNC Chairman Don Fowler made the substantive character of the appointment explicit: "Mr. Hotung has several policy options that he would like to suggest for consideration by administration officials," Fowler wrote in requesting the meeting, adding that Hotung was "a very strong supporter of the president." Even Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut observed that this "certainly looks like the movement of foreign money into an American campaign."

Furthermore, the hearings produced evidence that the $50,000 check that the now-fugitive Johnny Chung personally handed to Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams, came straight from a $150,000 wire transfer from the Bank of China, which is owned by the Chinese government.

And while the evidence mounts that Clinton and his operatives threw ethics out the window in their money-grubbing, most of the Democrats on the committee continue to pooh-pooh the case against Clinton's "good friend" Huang. Not one has had the courage to stand up and denounce the shameless Clinton-led sellout of the Democratic Party, although the president and vice president continue to personally raise millions for the DNC in the soft-money contributions they say they oppose.

Even a nonpartisan money-watcher like Chuck Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity is disgusted: "These people have not been chastened in the slightest," he told the Washington Times, even though "the Democrats are the reason why we're holding these hearings."

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