Show Us the Money

WEEK ONE OF the Senate's campaign finance investigation proved a disaster for the Republicans. On the very first day, Democrats made public documents obtained under committee subpoena showing conclusively that the Republicans' National Policy Forum was created by the party's then-chairman, Haley Barbour, as a laundromat for campaign cash, in violation of its tax status as a supposedly "independent" think tank. A letter to Barbour from the NPF's head, Michael Baroody, not only labeled the Forum's independence a "fiction" but complained about continuing pressure from Barbour to raise foreign money. The Senate panel's grilling of Barbour, now scheduled for the end of the month, promises to be particularly juicy.

Next, the first witness called by the Republicans, former Democratic National Committee finance director Richard Sullivan, sandbagged his GOP inquisitors. In a sworn deposition taken a month before the hearings began, Sullivan had painted a damning picture of the White House's frenzied greed for big bucks, and of the intense maneuvering by Lippo lobbyists and the White House to force Asian funny-money collector and launderer John Huang's hiring by a reluctant DNC. But by the time Sullivan got to the witness stand, the White House damage control team--provided an advance transcript of Sullivan's deposition under its arrangements with the committee--had obviously come down on Sullivan like a ton of bricks. Thus brought to heel and carefully coached, the baby-faced Sullivan proved a recalcitrantly dull witness, and the GOP Senators were reduced to reading portions of his deposition into the record in an attempt to enliven the proceedings.

Thirdly, the Senate panel's chairman, Fred Thompson, made a major p.r. blunder when he began the hearings with the old Republican war cry, "the Commies are coming!"--claiming the existence of a Chinese master plan to influence American elections--but without being able to produce the intelligence reports and intercepts that may have proved his case. Those documents (whose existence had been revealed months earlier by the press) are being withheld from the public on grounds of "national security"--the screen behind which presidents of both parties have traditionally concealed some of their worst malfeasances--and may never see the light of day, so by week's end Thompson was forced to admit on Meet the Press that he may never be able to prove his charges.

Finally, the White House--working through the Senate committee's Democratic counsel--orchestrated a phony offer by John Huang to testify under "limited immunity," knowing full well that Attorney General Janet Reno would oppose the immunity grant, and that most legal scholars believe the Senate cannot confer limited immunity in such a case. Huang is presumably in a position to say whether the goal of his money-laundering was access-buying for his employers, industrial espionage, part of a Chicom intelligence scheme, or all three.

But the real outrage is not that foreigners of one stripe or another were trying to illegally buy their way into our electoral process, but that our system is so structurally corrupt that big money interests can purchase politicians and policy in ways that are perfectly legal. This is the important issue, but one which the first phase of the Senate hearings is deliberately designed not to address.

Bill Clinton has tried to deflect attention from his unparalleled merchandising of the presidency by claiming he's opposed to soft money in politics, and made headlines when he asked the Federal Elections Commission to ban it. But the hypocrisy of Clinton's ploy was revealed when he recently reappointed FEC commissioner John Warren McGarry. A Democrat, McGarry in his 20 years on the commission has consistently voted against any limitation on soft money. And McGarry also cast the deciding vote that prevented the FEC from accepting its own auditors' recommendation that the 1992 Clinton campaign be ordered to refund $3.4 million in questionable contributions. Furthermore, as Common Cause has charged, Clinton has helped to keep the FEC "severely hobbled" by failing to appoint new commissioners (one of the FEC's six seats has been vacant for nearly two years, and three other commissioners remain in office even though their terms expired in 1995 and 1996).

Although the White House clearly out-maneuvered the Republicans last week, it is much too soon to stay that the hearings are a complete fizzle. After all, who today remembers the name of the first witness in the Watergate hearings? (It was Robert Odle.) This week's witnesses will include Lippo executives and a CIA official who is supposed to say what was in those classified briefings John Huang received at the Commerce Department.

However, the movement for campaign finance reform is media-driven, and with the Big Three networks, CNN, and even PBS refusing to provide live hearings coverage, the voting public couldn't follow them if they wanted to. The TV blackout is an abdication of democratic responsibility nearly as scandalous as the subjects of the hearings themselves.

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