Republican Sen. Fred Thompson opened hearings into campaign fund-raising abuses Tuesday by charging that the Chinese government poured “substantial sums” of illegal money into U.S. political campaigns during the 1996 elections to influence politicians and promote Chinese interests.
And Ohio Sen. John Glenn, speaking for the Democrats, announced that John Huang, the mystery figure at the heart of questions about China and the presidential campaign, had offered to testify before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
Huang, who was an employee of the Indonesia-based Lippo Group before working as a political appointee at the Commerce Department and a fund-raiser at the Democratic National Committee, said he would tell the committee whatever it wants to know if he is given limited immunity, according to a letter from his attorney, Ty Cobb. Thompson and Glenn instructed their top aides to see whether Huang’s testimony could be arranged.
Still, Thompson expressed some skepticism about the offer. “If Mr. Huang or anybody wants to give the committee full, complete and truthful information we are very much interested. But if he has hatched a plot to absolve himself while at the same time covering for his friends, we are not interested in that,” Thompson said.
Cobb said Huang wanted immunity for potential violations of campaign laws, but not for disclosure of classified information, economic espionage, unlawful communication, receipt of classified information or for being an agent of a foreign government. He also said Huang had become a victim of discrimination against Asians.
“Having become a defenseless target … Mr. Huang feels compelled to forego the security of his constitutional protections and to attempt honorably to acknowledge whatever mistakes he may have made over time and, in the process, to attempt to dispel the regrettable racism spawned by the repeated, often erroneous depictions of him and his activities,” Cobb wrote.
Several senators, including Utah Republican Bob Bennett, denounced Huang Tuesday and suggested he was an economic spy for China.
But Glenn cautioned against concluding that treason had been committed “based on a partial story with ambiguous information.” Alluding to the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his hunt for communists, Glenn said, “This committee has an unhappy history in that respect, during the ‘50s, and I doubt anyone up here wants to return to those dark days.”
And Senator Daniel K. Akaka, a Democrat from Hawaii, warned his colleagues against making assumptions based on an individual’s race or ethnic background. “Asian Pacific Americans have been targeted and misrepresented from the moment the press saw a good story in the allegations of foreign contributions to the 1996 elections,” Akaka said.
The hearings, which come after months of investigation at locations all over the globe, are rife with tension between Democrats and Republicans. For example, members of the two parties competed to make news with the allegation that China funneled money into U.S. elections, and with Huang’s offer to testify. Overall, Democrats are trying to use the hearings as leverage for changing campaign finance laws, while Republicans complain that Democrats are trying to divert attention from their own illegal fundraising practices.
Democrats and Republicans Tuesday also jockeyed to show that the other party was worse when it came to abusing the campaign finance system and raising foreign dollars for American campaigns. Republicans pointed to Huang’s fund-raising, noting that about half of the $3.4 million he raised was returned by the Democratic Party because of questions about its origins. Democrats, for their part, pointed to the National Policy Forum, a Republican think tank with close ties to the Republican National Committee that appears to have received foreign donations.
Opening day of the hearings, which included no witnesses, only statements from senators, began with the strong allegations about Chinese money in U.S. elections made by Thompson, of Tennessee.
“The committee believes high-level Chinese government officials crafted a plan to increase China’s influence over the US political process,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he believes the scheme is being carried on even today as the FBI, U.S. intelligence and the committee continues to investigate. Thompson, however, refused to reveal evidence of the scheme because of its sensitivity. But Democrats said they had reviewed the same classified information and did not reach the same conclusions.
Chinese officials have vociferously denied having a plan to illegally participate in American politics.
Two Democratic senators said their review of the classified information gathered by U.S. intelligence did not lead them to believe there was an intentional plot to infiltrate the U.S. political system by the Chinese.
“I have seen nothing that would lead me to go quite that far,” said Glenn, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
“I don’t see specific evidence of the specific conclusion that China funneled money into American congressional campaigns,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn.
But Thompson told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing that he had seen evidence to back up his charges.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT? When the hearings resume today, Richard Sullivan, the former Democratic National Committee finance director, will be called as the first witness.
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