Cover Story

The House Bulldog

The rap on the Senate hearings into fundraising abuses by the Clinton reelection team is that the laborious, colorless investigation is boring. Not so the House probe, which starts this month, the committee chairman suggests. Dan Burton, whose congressional softball team is called "The Bulldogs," promises to play hardball with the Clinton White House.

Issue: "Motel 1600," Sept. 6, 1997

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.

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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.


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