WASHINGTON--In the maze of marble that passes for the Rayburn House Office Building, there is nothing remarkable about Room 2159. Junior staffers from the White House, temporarily slumming it on some congressional errand, would probably have to stop and ask directions from one of the building's impassive security guards.
But their boss knows all about Room 2159, and beginning sometime this month many of his top aides will come to know the route by heart. This is the hearing room for the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, and it's there that the Clinton Administration's place in history may well be decided.
When the television spotlights come up in Room 2159, they'll find administration officials sitting at long tables in blue leather armchairs, their lawyers by their side. Above the tables, the 44 members of the committee will stare down from a three-tiered dais that sweeps forward in a semicircle, like wooden arms reaching out to encircle the witnesses below.
At the center of that dais-and, for a few weeks, the center of the political universe-will be U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). As chairman of the committee, the Indiana Republican is charged with following the money trail laid down by Democratic contributors during the president's first term. All the road signs along that trail point to corruption, influence peddling, even foreign intervention in American politics. With his $4 million budget and staff of 22 investigators, it will be up to Mr. Burton to determine where-and to whom-the trail leads.
Not everyone, of course, is eager to see the Burton Committee succeed. Last spring, just one day before Mr. Burton was scheduled to request funding for his investigation, Mark Siegel, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a lobbyist for Pakistani business interests, stepped forward to claim that the congressman had demanded a campaign donation in exchange for granting access to his Pakistani clients.
Congressional Democrats immediately jumped on the story and demanded an investigation of Mr. Burton. Attorney General Janet Reno was happy to oblige, and within days a federal grand jury was hearing testimony from former colleagues of Mr. Siegel.
If Mr. Burton is indicted (indictment says nothing about a defendant's guilt-only that enough evidence exists to warrant a trial), he would under House rules be forced to relinquish his chairmanship, putting a serious crimp on the House investigation. That leads veteran conservative activist and broadcaster Paul Weyrich to believe the Justice Department is pulling out all the stops to win a grand jury indictment.
"Reno's Revenge" is what Will Dwyer calls this Democratic counter-investigation. An attorney and spokesman for the Burton Committee, Mr. Dwyer says the president has made a mockery of his promise to cooperate fully in the investigation. Instead, he says, the administration has thrown up roadblocks, dragged its feet, and tried to intimidate investigators. In late July, for instance, when the committee requested files on former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, "suddenly an FBI agent turns up in Indianapolis with a subpoena for Dan Burton's campaign records dating back to 1992. This is stuff you'd have long since filed away, sent off to warehouses."
The subpoena was nothing but a scare tactic, Mr. Dwyer insists, because the campaign documents were already a matter of public record on file with the Federal Election Commission. "Having to go through it all now is going to be a very expensive thing-maybe as much as $100,000 from his personal campaign account. It subtracts from a warchest he would have had for reelection."
Mr. Burton insists he's innocent of any wrongdoing and that those investigating him will come up empty-handed. "I have no problem with giving them my records," he told WORLD. "In fact, we're getting them compiled right now. The point is that the Justice Department appears to be-appears to be-doing the bidding of the White House and trying to make life as uncomfortable as possible for anybody that's investigating those illegal campaign contributions."
Moreover, he adds, the Justice Department's counter-investigation might not be limited to such gentlemanly tactics as subpoenas and depositions. Mr. Burton was told recently by a colleague that for three days, two men in a white van were parked outside the congressman's condo, watching the comings and goings. "I never saw them," Mr. Burton stresses, "but he did. He stopped me in the parking lot of a grocery store near where we live, and he's very reliable." Mr. Burton refused to disclose the name of his observant colleague because he said the man had given him the information in confidence. Pressed again about the story, and warned that such an unsubstantiated charge damages his boss's credibility, a spokesman also refused.
Asked whether there were any truth to the accusation, a Justice Department spokesman replied, "I have no idea. You may want to check with the FBI." A spokesman for the FBI's Washington field office was more categorical: "We do not have Congressman Burton under surveillance regarding his fundraising activities. We do not have him under surveillance for anything as far as I know."
But after all the legal maneuvering to slow his investigation, Mr. Burton is convinced the Reno Justice Department is out to get him. "There's been so many goofy things happening that I just assume that they're listening to everything I do. I don't worry about it. I just assume that right now my phones are being monitored, and I don't think I'm being paranoid."
While his critics might accuse him of being exactly that, they have to admit that any such delusions simply feed his determination to get at the truth. It's no coincidence that Mr. Burton's staff team in the congressional softball league is known as "The Bulldogs."
"Every time they [the Justice Department] pull a stunt like this, it makes me more determined to get to the bottom of all these things," Mr. Burton says. "It shows me that they're very concerned about me finding out about these illegal contributions. If there wasn't something they were concerned about, it seems to me they wouldn't be giving me all this heartburn. But since they're trying to discredit me and stop our investigation, it leads me to believe that there's more there."
Finding out just how much more won't be an easy task, even for a bulldog like Mr. Burton. Committee staffers have already entered some 400,000 pages of phone logs, receipts, bank records, and other papers into a massive database that will serve as the foundation for the case against the Clinton administration.
But written records alone won't provide the smoking gun the chairman is looking for. For that, he'll have to rely on the oral testimony that emerges in the coming weeks. At this point, though, most of the potential witnesses are keeping their mouths shut.
"There are an awful lot of Friends of Bill that have taken off," Mr. Burton laments. "The Riadys went back to Indonesia. Charlie Trie is in Shanghai, China, the last we heard. Pauline Kanchanalak, where has she gone? Thailand or something. Then you've got probably another 20 or 25 that have taken the Fifth Amendment-people who were conduits for illegal contributions." (See sidebar.)
Committee investigators have spent months in Asia on the trail of Mr. Clinton's expatriate pals, but so far none have been lured back to testify. In early August, staffers were within minutes of reaching Mr. Trie at a Beijing hotel, but he managed to slip out and disappear somewhere in the province of Jilin. Mr. Burton has repeatedly criticized the State Department for failing to pressure China and other countries into returning key witnesses. "Am I going to go to Shanghai and force this man to sit down with me?" he asked rhetorically in The New York Times following Mr. Trie's getaway. "It's almost impossible without more help from this administration.
"This man brought $720,000 to the president's legal defense fund, and laundered $1 million worth of foreign money through the Democratic National Committee. They don't want him here."
With so much riding on the testimony of Mr. Trie and a handful of other big fundraisers, Mr. Burton is willing to offer immunity from prosecution to those who will testify before his committee. Democrats generally oppose offering immunity, as does the Justice Department, which claims that such a move would hinder its ability to win indictments in its own, separate investigation.
But the Burton committee has no intention of waiting for Justice's plodding investigation. Like overriding a veto, granting immunity requires a two-thirds majority, which means that six of 20 Democrats on the committee must vote with a solid Republican bloc. Mr. Burton sees progress in forging such a coalition. As evidence against the administration continues to mount-such as last week's allegations of a $25,000 shakedown by former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary-Democrats are finding it harder and harder to close ranks behind their president.
Mr. Burton believes that some Democrats will put principle ahead of party, given enough evidence and enough time. And time is his ally. Unlike Sen. Fred Thompson's hearings on the other side of the Hill, which must conclude Dec. 31, the House investigation is authorized to continue through the current session of Congress-and even longer, if necessary.
Ultimately, however, the biggest hindrance to the Burton committee may not be subpoenas or foreign governments, but public apathy. Polls have consistently shown that most Americans are bewildered by the accusations and simply don't see why they should care. But to Mr. Burton, such apathy is short-sighted.
"I think the American people should care if any administration starts selling American foreign policy [or] any kind of secrets-military or economic-for campaign contributions," Mr. Burton says. "We should never sell any decisions that our government makes to any foreign power or business interest.... That is something that's very troublesome for me, and should be for the American people as well."
The Bulldog has been barking for a year now; in the coming weeks, he'll have the chance to prove that he's also got some bite. But he'll need to produce some convincing evidence-if not about white surveillance vans and tapped telephone lines, then certainly about how high the DNC money trail leads. The stakes are high for Mr. Burton. If he manages to uncover specific new evidence of wrongdoing, it could be a long fall for the president-in every sense of the term. If he doesn't, he may be seen as just another conspiracy theorist.