`Every time we open one door, it seems like it's four or five places we have to look,' says Dan Burton, chairman of the House Oversight hearings. He emphasizes that to get to the truth, `you have to build your case and you have to do your research.'
When Indiana Republican Dan Burton was tapped by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to lead an ever-widening probe into White House fund-raising practices, Washington's Chicken Littles cried that the sky was falling. They said he was too partisan. They said he was "a flake." They said he lacked the temperament to oversee a fair and thorough investigation--perhaps the most important in House history.
But 10 months later, with only one public hearing under its belt, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee--though slowed by obstructionists, buffeted by critics and after weathering a minor mutiny--is making steady headway in stormy seas. And contrary to expectations, the chairman once derided as a Hoosier Captain Ahab is taking heat from some restive Republicans for not being zealous enough in pursuit of the White House.
In fact, at a closed-door meeting with Republicans, an impatient Gingrich recently fumed about the slow pace of the hearings, Insight sources say.
"When I first became chairman, they said I would be a pit bull and wouldn't be able to conduct hearings," Burton tells Insight. "Some people said I would be too aggressive, too partisan. Now people are saying I'm too nice, I'm too patient.... It's one of those positions where no matter what you do, somebody's going to be a critic."
Oversight Committee spokesman Will Dwyer concedes that there have been few fireworks thus far--"It's not a show that's going to play on Broadway," he tells Insight--but promises that the probe, which Burton refuses to have rushed to judgment, will make up in substance what it has lacked in theatrics.
It was bound to be tough going for Burton from the start. For some, the eight-term conservative presented a jarring contrast to retiring Pennsylvania Republican Rep. William Clinger, whose steely resolve was camouflaged by a laid-back demeanor, but brought Oversight into its own with surprisingly dogged probes into the FBI files case and the White House travel-office scandal.
But as Clinton administration scandals have proliferated--"Travelgate" begetting "Filegate" begetting "Hubbellgate" begetting "Asiagate" begetting "Coffeegate" and now "Teamstergate"--Burton's inheritance has had to keep pace, meaning bigger budgets, a fivefold increase in investigators and expanded powers for the chairman. And such a transformation hasn't come without boiler pressures and growing pains.
What impatient observers and sidewalk supervisors fail to appreciate, Oversight insiders say, is the magnitude and complexity of the task facing Burton and his team of investigators. "Every time we open one door, there are four or five more places we have to look," Burton says. "But you have some people, even in our leadership, that want instant results, instant convictions, instant criminal referrals. And the fact of the matter is, if you're talking to someone who has been a prosecutor, which I haven't been, you have to build your case and you have to do your research."
In the search for answers to an ever-widening number of questions, more than 1 million documents have been subpoenaed, received, evaluated and cataloged in a computer database built from scratch. Arduous negotiations, often involving multiple parties with conflicting interests, have to be undertaken before immunity can be granted. And key witnesses have been maddingly elusive (22 individuals sought for questioning either have left the country or are living overseas) or tight-lipped (another 39 have exercised their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination). And contrasting styles among committee staff had to be ironed out.
When staffing up, Burton sought a mix of politically savvy investigators who knew their way around Capitol Hill, and seasoned attorneys who knew how to build a solid case. But he soon discovered that the two types aren't always compatible.
By midsummer a schism erupted between Burton's three apolitical attorneys, led by Chief Counsel John P. Rowley III, and two investigators seen by some as political partisans, David Bossie and Barbara Comstock. Bossie, a former Whitewater investigator, became a lightning rod for criticism when he leaked phone logs of former Commerce official John Huang to the media, a move that drew protests from the minority and brought Bossie a rebuke from Burton.
"The political staff didn't know how to run an investigation and just kept getting in the way," a source familiar with the dispute tells Insight. The attorneys "wanted to run things professionally," the source says, but Bossie and Comstock were "more interested in furthering their positions on the Hill." Another source calls Rowley and the others "nine-to-fivers" who were reluctant to put in long hours and "couldn't handle the high pressure." And, says the source, "Up here on the Hill, it's either the quick or the dead."
When Burton declined to fire Bossie Rowley and three others left the committee. The exodus set the committee's work back "several months," according to a source close to the situation. Another staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says "their leaving wasn't even a blip on the screen" and the committee has moved on. "The bottom line is, we didn't take a single deposition before they left."
"We're moving along in the right direction and I'm comfortable with where the investigation is going," says new Chief Counsel Dick Bennett, whose biggest frustration now seems to be overcoming obstructionist tactics by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the panel. "It appears that there has been more of an effort to fight [the investigation] than to get the facts," says Bennett, who has "assigned a lawyer whose daily task is to respond to Congressman Waxman's complaints."
But complaints are nothing new to the 12-term Democrat, who once called Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness "a bunch of zealots who were never elected by anyone using the White House as a basis to try to accomplish their ends by any means, including illegal ones." Ironically, one of Waxman's chief complaints to date is that the investigation is too partisan. "I am disappointed that it has been so partisan and unfair ... a tremendous waste of taxpayer money," Waxman tells Insight. However, the actions of the ranking Democrat, himself, and of several minority staffers raise questions about the minority's partisanship.
The taking of the deposition of Manlin Foung, Charlie [tie's sister and a "conduit contributor" of Asian money to the Democratic National Committee, is one example. After telling Foung that evidence suggested her brother was part of a conspiracy, the minority chief investigator Ken Ballen counseled the vulnerable Foung, "I wanted to tell you, so that you know the context of why you are being called here and what this is about." And Ballen persisted with what seemed to some present to be pure intimidation, saying, "There will be a hearing. There may be--there will be a large room with 44 congressmen sitting there. You will be at a table in front of them. There may be television cameras. There may be reporters. It is a public open hearing."
Ballen was even less subtle with another conduit contributor--David Wang. When Wang was questioned in August, he had admitted to contributing a total of $10,000 at the behest of John Huang. Playing to the camera, Waxman had chastised the committee for questioning Wang without his counsel present.
But the California Democrat's demeanor changed dramatically after Wang was granted immunity and called to testify in October. In an effort to discredit Wang, the minority staff contacted Wang's father, James, and attempted to have him contradict his son's testimony Though unable to do so, the staff issued a statement saying the elder Wang had, in fact, contradicted that testimony Furthermore, they questioned him without his attorney present.
But on Oct. 4, James Wang finally issued a statement, saying, "I was at the meeting with my son and John Huang and Mr. [Antonio] Pan on August 16 1996. At that meeting John Huang asked for a donation to the presidential campaign."
Despite Wang's confirmation that Huang solicited a contribution, Waxman continued to imply that David Wang lied. "We have overwhelming evidence that Mr. Huang was in New York, not Los Angeles, on the day you said you met with him." According to USA Today, however, several individuals involved with the fund-raiser in New York had expressed surprise that Huang was not at the event.
Waxman's inference also drew a response from Wang's attorney, Michael Carvin: "To say that somebody would falsely say that he was a conduit for John Huang is absurd. I can't think of any person in the world that you would want to associate yourself with less than John Huang." But Waxman stands firmly on the transparency "By granting immunity to David Wang, I think we did a disservice to the committee," Waxman tells Insight, this time alleging technical "offenses violating immigration and tax laws."
In fact, it is the Wang case that Waxman uses to argue against granting immunity to Gene and Nora Lum. The testimony of the Lums--who pleaded guilty in June to funneling money illegally to the Democratic Party and sentenced to 10 months in federal confinement--is important because of the length of their association with former commerce secretary and Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown and their involvement in the 1992 and 1996 Clinton fund-raising machine.
While Waxman cites the ongoing Justice Department case against them as a reason not to grant immunity, Bennett points out that Justice only is concentrating on tax charges which would not be an issue about which they might be questioned by the committee. "We must have the tool of compelling testimony ... it is a tool that is used in every U.S. attorney's office," says Bennett.
Capturing the attention of a scandal-numbed public may not be easy Although the committee's only public hearing to date elicited seemingly newsworthy revelations--showcasing three individuals who were used to funnel $35,000 in Asian money into Democratic Party campaign coffers--media coverage may have been dampened by an archaic House rule banning cameras or recorders in the hearing room during testimony when there is objection. In a recent letter to House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon of New York, reporter Vic Ratner, chairman of the Radio-Television Correspondents' Galleries, asked for a change to the rule, which he said "inhibits the ability of radio and television correspondents to cover the proceeding ... in an open and fair manner" and gives print journalists an unfair advantage.
The House "may see some sort of action" to rectify the situation soon, according to a Capitol Hill source, which might help boost the committee's visibility and would please its former chairman. "I would be in favor of changing the rules," says Clinger.
While acknowledging that the takeoff has been rocky, Clinger expressed confidence in Burton during an interview with Insight. "They had to ramp up very fast with a very hot potato in their hands," he says. "It's a highly supercharged atmosphere they're operating in," but the committee "seems to be running smoothly" and "proceeding as they should be."
Two challenges Burton faces that Clinger didn't are a take-no-prisoners approach by the committee's ranking minority member, and a White House that's changing tactics. "Henry Waxman is a very tough cookie," Clinger says. "He's bright, partisan and knows how to play hardball." And a White House that in Clinger's time resisted turning over anything until threatened with contempt of Congress is now releasing thousands of documents at a time, hoping to drown investigators in paper.
Clinger concedes that Republicans may lack "the killer instinct" Democrats often showed when they were in power. "I think one of the things that make you more tolerant is, having been in the minority for 40 years, you don't want to treat people the way you were treated." And having been so long in the majority, Democrats simply "have more experience about what they are doing," Clinger says.
But not every observer believes that the Burton committee is making head way. And some worry that, confronted with a cavalcade of complex scandals emerging from the White House, the committee may have lost focus and can't separate the forest from the trees
"I don't know what we are holding hearings on. First it was the accusation that the president and vice president had traded sophisticated technology with China for campaign cash," Waxman's chief of staff Phil Schiliro tells Insight. The focus next went to phone calls, then to Hubbell, then to Brown back to China and Hubbell and then to procedures involving the DNC and the White House, Schiliro says. Aren't all of those issues inextricably intertwined? "Nothing in the depositions would lead me to that conclusion," Schiliro says.
Waxman also has expressed frustration that the committee has not looked at alleged Republican abuses and that it is "duplicating" what the Senate and the Office of the Independent Counsel are investigating. When asked whether the committee should look into Republican abuses even while a Washington grand jury is doing so, Waxman responds: "I haven't really thought about it. Maybe we shouldn't hold hearings in the House" on alleged Republican abuses.
One top staffer for a prominent Republican tells Insight that the committee's primary focus should be investigating possible espionage activities by the Chinese government rather than analyzing videotapes of White House coffees. "All that has slipped off the pages," the source says of the espionage angle. "We wandered off to coffees and videotape," which the source believes is fairly innocuous" compared with "the national-security implications" of the Red China story.
But "the matter of whether foreign money is influencing the American political system" remains a committee priority, according to Bennett, and is a common thread that binds many of the scandals. "There are people who have fled the country and taken the Fifth Amendment who are on these [White House coffee] tapes," Bennett says.
To help untangle those threads, the committee recently hired Dudley "Butch" Hodgsen, a former FBI agent I specializing in foreign counterintelligence who worked on the Jonathan Pollard and John Walker spy cases.
Before long, the clock will have run out on Thompson's committee, and the media spotlight will be on the Burton probe alone. Committee sources say Burton -- who recently promised anxious colleagues hearings in November, December and January -- plans first to tackle the Clinton videotapes, pressing the White House hard about the delay in turning them over and the reason for gaps in some of them. "No one can dispute that there are interruptions," says Bennett. "I think it is an accurate word -- that was used by someone at the White House." White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis recently seemed to concede this fact when, after a Senate hearing, he was asked whether the tapes were "edited." He responded: "That is what I meant when I said `compiling.'"
Burton also intends to turn his attention to alleged Asian influence-buying and espionage -- particularly how former Commerce Department official Huang gained access to the White House and classified briefings.
"Sen. Thompson is about to end his hearings ... and I think you'll find we will be more aggressive and try to fill in some of the gaps that were left because [he] did not have the time," Burton tells Insight. "So I'm going to be thorough and I'm going to be fair ... and I'm going to do my best to get to the bottom of it all."
Stephen Goode contributed to this article.…