Dan Burton's Progress

Article excerpt

`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. …