A little-known former official of the Democratic National Committee said Wednesday that the White House pressured the party into hiring John Huang, the key player in the mystery over whether China tried to influence the American political process with campaign donations during the 1996 elections.
Richard Sullivan, 33, the former finance director of the DNC and the lead witness before a Senate panel investigating campaign finance abuses, said White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes had twice phoned his boss and urged him to hire Huang for a job raising money for the Democrats.
In Spain, President Clinton acknowledged for the first time that he may have personally helped Huang secure a job as a DNC fund-raiser in 1995.
“I think I may have said to someone that he wanted to go to work for the DNC,” Clinton said at a news conference in Madrid, where he was participating in a two-day NATO summit.
Huang has been a controversial figure this past year as one news report after another has tied him to questionable fund-raising practices during the 1996 presidential campaign. Of the $3.4 million he raised, primarily from the Asian-American community, about half has been returned due to questions about whether the money came from foreign or improper sources. Foreign donations to U.S. political campaigns are illegal.
Before working for the Commerce Department as a political appointee, and before working for the DNC as a fund-raiser, Huang was employed by the Lippo Group, an Indonesia-based conglomerate.
On Tuesday, Huang, through his attorney, offered to testify before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in exchange for a grant of limited immunity from prosecution. But Wednesday, Attorney General Janet Reno, who is investigating campaign fund-raising practices in the 1996 elections, told Senate committee Chairman Fred Thompson that she opposes granting Huang immunity, or even limited immunity.
Thompson and other senators said that, although they did not want disrupt any possible criminal prosecution of Huang, they would continue to look into finding a way for him to testify.
Sullivan, in his testimony, said he had serious concerns about hiring Huang due to Huang’s inexperience, and insisted that Huang receive extensive training from the DNC’s general counsel in the rules of fund-raising. Sullivan said he was particularly concerned that Huang understand the importance of not soliciting foreign contributions.
“I was concerned that John knew the rule,” said Sullivan, who is scheduled to continue testifying today.
Republicans on the committee emphasized the outside pressure on the DNC to hire Huang, an inexperienced fund-raiser with ties to a foreign corporation who was targeting the Asian-American community. On Tuesday, Thompson charged that the Chinese government poured substantial sums of money into U.S. poliical campaigns in an illegal effort to influence politicians and promote Chinese interests.
Democrats, however, mocked Wednesday’s session for lacking new developments and for presenting a relatively unknown first witness - a young political staffer studying to take the bar exam.
“For the $65,000 the hearing cost us, we think you could have read about it for 25 cents in an old newspaper,” said Lanny Davis, the White House spokesman on campaign fund-raising questions.
Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee, while questioning Sullivan suggested there never was a plot by the DNC or the White House to raise money from outside the country.
Glenn asked if there was ever any discussion with DNC Chairman Don Fowler of raising foreign money.
“No,” replied Sullivan.
Glen then asked if there was ever any hint or communication from the president or vice president to go after foreign money. Glenn asked “No,” Sullivan said.
The senator also asked if the White House staff ever gave any hint that the DNC should solicit foreign contributions.
“No,” Sullivan again replied.
When Glenn again asked whether, when Huang joined the DNC, there was a discussion with him about raising foreign dollars, Sullivan said “no” for the last time.
“I think that sort of cuts to the bottom line here,” Glenn concluded.
Later, Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, noted that Sullivan had no knowledge of any foreign governmental influence over U.S. elections and yet was the lead witness for a committee investigating the foreign influence of the U.S. political process.
“I will only suggest, Mr. Chairman, that if Mr. Sullivan is the lead witness before this committee, having absolutely no knowledge or experience with the raising of foreign contributions, the compromising of security or the sharing of classified information, one can only conclude that the final witness … is unlikely to find China on a map,” Torricelli said.
But Thompson praised his first witness for being “straightforward” and “cooperative” with the committee and said he would make a good lawyer. Nevertheless, Republican staffers made clear they were disappointed, saying Sullivan had toned down his testimony from the original 557-page deposition he gave prior to the hearings.
Sullivan testified that he interviewed Huang for a job only after his boss, then-DNC Finance Chairman Marvin Rosen, said he had received two phone calls from Ickes, who was working at the White House.
“My sense of it at the time was that Harold had called Marvin twice over a period of couple of weeks, and that is when Marvin acted on it,” Sullivan said.
After the 1996 election, Sullivan said Rosen told him that the president himself had wanted Huang to come to work at the DNC. “He mentioned that at some point, in passing, that the president had asked him if he had heard that John was interested in coming to the DNC,” Sullivan said.
Clinton said Wednesday that he was happy to have anyone help him solicit funds for the Democratic Party.
“Most people don’t volunteer to help you raise money in this world. It’s normally an onerous task,” the president said in Madrid. “And so if anybody volunteered, I would have referred virtually anybody’s name to the party. But I had some acquaintance with him for several years going back to my service as governor, so I knew who he was.”
Clinton was also asked about Thompson’s charge that China had tried to illegally influence U.S. elections with campaign contributions.
“It is a serious charge,” Clinton said. “If any country -any country - sought to influence policy through illegal means, including illegal campaign contributions to the people running for president or people in the Congress, it would be wrong and a matter of serious concern. But I simply don’t know. And I think we have to let the investigation play itself out.”