In an attempt to revive its stalled investigation, the Senate committee looking into questionable and illegal fund-raising practices in the 1996 election is preparing to vote on granting immunity to at least a dozen figures, a move that could cloud possible prosecution of the witnesses, officials said Tuesday.
Frustrated by the reluctance of numerous potential witnesses to testify at congressional hearings next month, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who is heading the inquiry, will seek an immunity vote Thursday in a closed session of the Governmental Affairs Committee. The recipients of the immunity would be behind-the-scenes players with knowledge of improper fund-raising practices, not key figures in the controversy, officials said.
“They’re lower-level players in the theater,” said a committee source. “They’re not the Charlie Tries or John Huangs.”
Huang, a former Democratic National Committee fund-raiser who is at the center of the inquiry, and Yah Lin “Charlie” Trie, a former Little Rock, Ark., restaurateur whose donations to various Democratic causes have been questioned, are among about three dozen key figures that committee investigators have sought in vain to interview. Huang, like most of these figures, has indicated to his attorney that he does not intend to cooperate with the committee’s investigation. A handful of the others, including Trie, has left the country.
The decision to move ahead with immunity for some witnesses indicates the pressures facing Senate investigators as they race to prepare for the scheduled start of the hearings on July 8. While the grant of immunity would guarantee some televised testimony--and thus greater attention for the inquiry--the legal move would greatly complicate, if not eliminate, the chances of obtaining subsequent criminal prosecutions of witnesses.
The names of those being considered for immunity were not released. Senate Republicans said late Tuesday that they were preparing to notify their Democratic counterparts of the names, along with information on why immunity makes sense in each case.
The outcome of Thursday’s committee vote is by no means certain. Partisan tensions on the panel are boiling over and Thompson needs the support of two-thirds of the 16-member committee--or at least two of the seven Democrats--to grant immunity to any witness.
In recent days, Democrats have threatened to walk out of this week’s meeting if Thompson does not agree to issue more subpoenas aimed at possible Republican fund-raising abuses. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), a panel member, predicted Tuesday that Thompson might have a tough time winning approval for immunity if he does not give ground to Democrats in other areas.
“Before Sen. Thompson can get our approval for the granting of immunity . . . he has to ensure that . . . we are comfortable that this will be a bipartisan inquiry,” Torricelli said in an interview.
Another concern, Torricelli added, is whether Justice Department officials consider the grants of immunity an impediment to their separate criminal investigation of fund-raising abuses.
Thompson, meanwhile, has expressed frustration with his Democratic counterparts. On Tuesday, he wrote a letter to Roy Romer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, accusing the Democratic Party of delaying the investigation by producing documents at “a snail’s pace” and improperly invoking attorney-client privilege to resist committee inquiries into some issues.
While committee Republicans intend to limit immunity to little-known figures on the periphery of the controversy, they acknowledged that the list of those given legal protection could grow beyond a dozen. “This is not all,” a committee source said of the initial batch proposed this week.
Immunity has long been used as a way of inducing reluctant witnesses to appear before television cameras at committee hearings. It paved the way for then-White House Counsel John Dean’s crucial testimony to a Senate committee during the Watergate investigation of the Nixon administration.
But the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s changed the legal landscape.
After a joint House-Senate panel gave Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter immunity to testify on the Reagan administration’s proposed arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, a federal appeals court dismissed subsequent criminal charges against them, ruling that their appearances before Congress had tainted the criminal cases.
Prosecutors would have difficulty using testimony given under a congressional grant of immunity or any information derived from it against the witness in subsequent criminal trials. The burden is on the prosecutors to show that their case has not been tainted by the congressional testimony. As a result, legislative committees generally avoid granting immunity to anyone they consider a prosecution target.
The immunity only applies if the witness testifies truthfully and is not found to have perjured himself or herself before Congress.
If Democrats do prevent Thompson from issuing immunity, the action would not be unprecedented.
Last summer, Democratic senators successfully prevented Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who headed a congressional investigation into the Whitewater land deal, from granting immunity to David Hale, a former Arkansas municipal judge who was President Clinton’s chief accuser in the case. As a result, Hale did not appear before the cameras.