Features

Nothing to sniff at

National | Burton's congressional investigation is hot on the trail

Issue: "Donna Rice Hughes," April 19, 1997

It's springtime in Washington, and the scent of cherry blossoms is in the air. Or is that the smell of blood? Congressional investigators, who have been sniffing out various scandals almost from day one of the Clinton Administration, believe they've finally got a live trail. The press and the public may have yawned over Whitewater, Travelgate, Paula Jones, and Gennifer Flowers, but the almost-daily revelations of fundraising improprieties in the Clinton White House seem to have finally fired the popular imagination. Consider:

nMr. Clinton hosted 103 "coffees" in the White House Map Room that were little more than Democratic fundraisers. The Democratic National Committee predicted in advance how much each get-together might raise, then notified the president afterwards as to the total take.

nMore than 900 people received invitations to sleep at the White House during Mr. Clinton's first term. Although the president originally insisted they were all "close friends," internal documents indicate that they kicked in as much as $10 million for Democratic campaign efforts.

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nJohn Huang, an old Clinton crony from his Little Rock days, raised more than $3 million from Asian-American sources. The DNC had to refund most of that money, however, because it appeared to come from Asian sources using Asian-American fronts. Among the most controversial: alleged contributions from China, seeking to "buy" better relations with the United States.

With so many apparent ethical lapses, some conservatives wonder whether congressional investigators are playing softball. Is this just another example of politics as usual inside the Beltway?

WORLD posed those questions to a highly placed source who is intimately familiar with the congressional investigation. Though he asked that his name not be used for fear of strengthening the hand of opponents who would discredit the committee, he agreed to give WORLD readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the investigation that threatens to topple many high-ranking Democratic officials.

In the first place, he stressed, this investigation is anything but softball. With a $3.8 million budget, Rep. Dan Burton's Government Reform and Oversight Committee has the funds to follow the money trail wherever it may lead. But all the money in the world won't make the investigation quick or easy. "The legal stuff is tricky," the source acknowledged. "It's like playing pro sports--it looks easy, but it's not. We believe there's a lot there, but there's a big difference between what you believe and what you know, and again between what you know and what you can prove."

The sheer size of the investigation is one reason he believes it will be at least nine months before the committee knows anything conclusively. Already, investigators are faced with 750,000 pages of documents which they must read word for word. That number will swell into the millions before the case is closed, and that's in addition to the oral testimony of the nearly 1,000 witnesses who have been subpoenaed.

To handle the workload, 10 investigators put in 12- to 15-hour days, including six of the last eight weekends. To make sure that no "smoking gun" is thrown out on a technicality, the committee looks for investigators who not only understand the intricacies of campaign finance, but also "know how to prosecute a criminal case." One investigator came over from the Senate's Whitewater committee. Another is a former high-ranking attorney from the Justice Department's Criminal Tax Division, while a third worked on the special counsel investigation of former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros.

These investigators have been around long enough to know the kind of mistakes that can undermine an investigation. Not that they'll be spending all their time inside the Beltway this time around. "This case encompasses a dozen countries from Vietnam to the Sudan and Paraguay to Indonesia," the source said, "so teams of investigators may have to travel internationally."

Closer to home they'll be tracking down leads that seem to multiply day by day. Although WORLD's source can tick off the names of a half-dozen officials who are pleading the Fifth Amendment and refusing to cooperate, he is cheered by another development that he says he hasn't seen before: "Some former White House or DNC members are calling out of the blue and saying, 'It's not me. I didn't do anything, but look into so-and-so.' That's a very good sign. We may be able to open this thing up."

Still, he's not expecting any sudden breakthrough. Instead, he says, the case will be built piece by piece on documentary evidence. Investigators pore over every receipt, every phone log, every memo received. Sometimes documents are withheld and further, more specific requests must be made. Other times everything is handed over, but with absolutely no organization: Documents are simply dumped helter-skelter into copy-paper cartons and delivered by the truckload. And sometimes a critical document is found, but without any indication of whose handwriting it is in or whose hands it may have passed through.

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