Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was so dedicated to helping the Nicaraguan Contras that he once remarked, “I don’t care if I have to go to jail for this (or) if I have to lie to Congress about this,” a fund-raiser who worked with him testified Wednesday.
Carl R. (Spitz) Channell, founder of the conservative National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty, told North’s federal court trial that he overheard the former White House aide make the remark while he and North were soliciting donations from financier Nelson Bunker Hunt on a visit to Dallas in September, 1985.
Channell, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the government in connection with the fund-raising, said North and Hunt were having a private after-dinner conversation when Hunt suddenly asked, “What are you going to do if you get in trouble over this?”
‘Sort of Chortled’
Channell quoted North as replying: “I don’t care if I have to go to jail for this; I don’t care if I have to lie to Congress about this.” Hunt, said Channell, “didn’t laugh but he sort of chortled.”
At that time, Channell said he and North were soliciting millions of dollars from wealthy U.S. citizens because Congress had cut off direct funding of guerrilla forces fighting the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
North is being tried on 12 felony charges, including making false statements to Congress and obstructing congressional inquiries in 1985 and 1986 by denying he was helping to resupply the Contras or was giving them military advice. His defense is that his superiors in the Ronald Reagan White House had instructed him to conceal his activities.
North also is charged with the same count Channell pleaded guilty to in April, 1987--conspiracy to defraud the United States of taxes by making illegal use of a tax-exempt organization to solicit money for the Contras. That group was the conservative foundation Channell established in 1984 with the broad purpose of “educating members of the public on the American political system.”
Under questioning by associate prosecutor Michael Bromwich, Channell acknowledged he has cooperated with the government in hopes of receiving a lenient sentence. Although he could receive maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Channell said independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh “will report to the sentencing judge the extent of my cooperation.”
Channell added under cross-examination by defense attorney Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. that he took on the fund-raising voluntarily without “pushing” from North, a staff assistant on the National Security Council.
“Did Col. North ever ask you to do anything you regarded as improper?” Sullivan asked.
“No,” Channell replied.
Channell said he brought dozens of wealthy donors to attend White House briefings by North on the needs of the Nicaraguan rebel forces, and sometimes to meet Reagan himself. Sullivan obtained permission from U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell to show jurors several White House photographs of Reagan shaking hands with donors in the Cabinet Room.
Channell said he received a brief thank-you phone call from the former President in June, 1986, and a letter on another occasion.
Two wealthy women identified as Ellen Garwood and Barbara Newington gave a combined total of more than $3 million in stock certificates to Channell’s tax-exempt foundation to help the Contras, Channell said. When he dumped the certificates on North’s desk in the White House, he said North remarked, “I don’t know how people get that much money.”
Channell said he understood the donations went for food, medicines and military equipment to fight the war in Nicaragua, and thus “varied from the mandate of our foundation.” But he nonetheless instructed donors they could claim an income tax deduction, he testified.