Senate Republicans sought Wednesday to link the White House to an illegal financing scheme that aided the election of Teamsters President Ron Carey, but they were forced to backpedal within hours, resulting in a rare apology to President Clinton.
“If you’ve got to eat any crow, or even half a crow, it is better to do it when it is warm than when it gets cold,” said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.
Thompson, chairman of the Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising practices, alleged during Wednesday’s hearing that a Teamsters union consultant met privately in the White House with President Clinton and Clinton-Gore campaign officials around the time the illegal scheme was hatched.
Three former union consultants have pleaded guilty in New York to charges that they illegally diverted Teamsters union funds to Carey’s re-election campaign. Court papers filed in connection with the case say the consultants and DNC officials discussed a plan in which the Teamsters would contribute to Democratic campaigns in exchange for help from DNC officials in soliciting contributions for Carey’s campaign. The papers do not indicate whether the plan ever was carried out.
The clear implication of Thompson’s statement was that Clinton himself might have been aware of the scheme. But after the White House produced documents showing that Clinton had not met privately with the union consultant, Thompson said he had made a mistake.
This isn’t the first time Thompson has been forced to back off allegations of illegal election activities. Thompson opened the Senate hearings in July charging that there was a foreign government plan to influence the 1996 elections with illegal campaign contributions. But he said later the committee had developed no information to support that claim.
The Teamsters flap highlighted the second day of testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee by Harold Ickes, former deputy White House chief of staff and a key figure in Clinton’s re-election campaign.
Ickes told the committee he knew nothing of the Teamsters scheme and said he doubts anyone in the White House or the Democratic National Committee would have lent themselves to such an effort.
“We were literally littered with lawyers,” he said.
Ickes frequently clashed with his Republican interrogators and raised the ire of several GOP committee members by suggesting that the Clinton White House political operation was similar to those that had existed under former presidents Reagan and Bush.
“You are the most skillful witness to appear,” said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. “It is almost impossible to interrogate a man like you, you are just too good.”
“Senator,” Ickes responded, “can I check my wallet?”
House hearings open
Meanwhile, the House started its public hearings on campaign fund-raising abuses Wednesday with a promise of a balanced inquiry and a hint of bombshell testimony about foreign money ties to Clinton’s first presidential campaign.
“It appears that the seeds of today’s scandals may have been planted as early as 1991,” said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
Burton said the committee soon will debate whether to grant immunity to a California couple who would testify about their role in funneling a $50,000 contribution from an unidentified foreigner to Clinton’s 1992 campaign in exchange for Clinton’s endorsement of a foreign politician.
A campaign aide signed then-Gov. Clinton’s name to a letter supporting the candidacy of the foreign politician, “who is now the leader of an Asian nation,” according to a letter to the committee from the couple’s attorney. The couple, Nora and Gene Lum, pleaded guilty earlier this year to other fund-raising violations.
The White House said it would not comment on the allegation.
With investigations already under way by the Senate and Justice Department, Burton used the prospect of the Lums’ testimony to argue that his inquiry is necessary.
Democrats accused Burton of mounting a partisan investigation designed solely to embarrass Democrats and help Republicans keep control of Congress in next year’s elections.
“This committee remains dead set on conducting a frivolous partisan folly,” said Rep. Paul Kanjorksi, D-Pa., who said the committee has issued 534 subpoenas and other requests for information aimed at Democrats and only 10 aimed at Republicans.
“Because the nation is at peace, the economy is doing well and the federal bureaucracy has been tamed, the Republicans have few Democratic targets about which to complain these days,” he said.
Also Wednesday, White House special counsel Lanny A. Breuer testified before a grand jury to explain why videotapes of White House coffees had not been handed over to the Justice Department until Saturday, just after Attorney General Janet Reno declined to appoint an independent counsel.