House Republicans on Wednesday sharply questioned the chairman of the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign about nearly $50,000 in contributions to the Democratic Party from a Massachusetts firm that was receiving $33 million in contracts from the Energy Department.
Peter S. Knight, the campaign official, was a paid lobbyist for the firm, Molten Metal Technology Inc., and a former Gore staff member before heading the Clinton-Gore reelection effort.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, pointed to “a remarkable relationship between the timing of Molten Metal’s political contributions” in 1994 and 1995, when Knight was the firm’s lobbyist. The company’s government work was growing at the time.
Many of these donations “were apparently solicited or facilitated by Mr. Knight” while he was negotiating with a high-ranking Energy Department official, Thomas Grumbly, who had known Knight when they both worked for Gore, then a U.S. senator from Tennessee, Barton said.
Knight acknowledged advising some of his clients to contribute to Democrats, but he insisted that “political contributions played no role in Molten Metal’s success story,” a position backed up by Grumbly, who awarded the contracts.
“I had absolutely no knowledge that they were making contributions at any particular time,” Grumbly testified. He said the firm had perfected a technology using a molten metal bath to destroy hazardous and radioactive waste materials.
In the last election cycle, the firm gave $47,000 to Democratic committees, while donating $34,000 to Republicans, Knight said.
Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.), the subcommittee’s ranking minority member, accused Republicans of overreaching to create a false picture of fund-raising abuse. Klink said Molten Metal gained a foothold at the Energy Department by winning its first $1.2-million contract during the Bush administration.
When the firm’s technology proved successful, its government contracts eventually grew to $33 million, according to Klink and Energy Department officials.
Another Democratic member, Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, read from a subcommittee staff memo saying that no intervention by Gore or his office had been found but that open hearings would guarantee press attention.
“There are serious questions about why we are having this hearing,” Dingell said.
Knight, who was a top aide to Gore when he was a senator and led his unsuccessful 1988 presidential primary campaign, said he did not instigate a visit to Molten Metal’s plant by Gore two years ago. He added that he never sought Gore’s help to get business for the company, even though the firm’s chairman gave him $20,000 in stock shortly before he was named Clinton-Gore campaign chairman.
“I have never talked to Vice President Gore about any federal contract for any client,” Knight insisted. “I have never arranged a government contract or grant in consideration for any type of contribution, including charitable contributions.”
Knight apparently was referring to William M. Haney, Molten Metal’s chairman, who is a longtime friend and supporter of Gore. In the spring of 1994, Haney gave $50,000 to help endow a chair in environmental studies at the University of Tennessee to be named after Gore’s sister, Nancy Gore Hunger, who died of lung cancer in 1984. Knight had helped to raise more than $200,000 toward the endowment.
“I am proud of the work I have done for Molten Metal because the company is making a real difference on the vexing problems posed by nuclear wastes,” Knight said.
Barton said documents obtained by the subcommittee show career analysts at the Energy Department questioned, at one point, Grumbly’s decision to modify Molten Metal’s contract to provide an additional $9 million “before any work had been done or results achieved from the original contract.”
Grumbly responded that “there were disagreements about the performance of the technology, although they did not come to my attention at the time.”