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Burton's Glass House


Time, Washington, D.C., May 26, 1997

Photo: Dan Burton

Does he have the probity of a prime-time prosecutor? Newt seems to have doubts

With enemies like Dan Burton, Bill Clinton doesn't need friends. The feisty and sometimes flaky Indiana Republican is slated to chair the House hearings on campaign-finance scandals, but even as he prepares to cast the first stones, he is being hit with allegations of his own fund-raising sins. He has been accused of shaking down a lobbyist for campaign contributions, improperly accepting money from Sikh temples and pressuring an Education Department official to help a contributor. And last week he had to return a $500 donation from a lobbyist for Zaire's departed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Burton and his aides dismiss the accusations as a partisan campaign to distract attention from his investigation of the President and the Democrats. But Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders are concerned that Burton does not have the probity of a prime-time presidential prosecutor. They fear that the pressure on Burton, who once re-enacted Vince Foster's death by shooting bullets into 'a headlike object' in his own backyard, may provoke the chairman into saying or doing something else that could discredit the investigation. Sources close to the Speaker tell TIME that Gingrich is so concerned about Burton's reputation that he has assigned two members of the committee known for their judiciousness to try to steer Burton away from further danger.

Being sent to Burton's aid are Ohio's Rob Portman and California's Christopher Cox, both of whom served in the White House counsel's office under Republican Presidents. Gingrich hopes their experience will prove valuable to an investigation that involves complex legal haggling with Clinton's counsel, Charles Ruff. But the Speaker's real goal, says a close adviser, is 'to encircle' the chairman and 'put him on a shorter leash.' The leadership has added to its leverage by setting aside much of the money Burton requested for his committee in a 'reserve fund.' 'We only gave him money for this year,' says a leadership aide. 'That way, if he tanks, we can pull the plug on him.'

It is Burton's past that has been haunting him and giving comfort to the White House. First the New York Times reported he accepted an invitation to play in a Pro-Am golf tournament at Pebble Beach, Calif., sponsored by AT&T, which has business before Burton's committee. AT&T also threw a fund raiser for Burton during the tournament.

More bad news arrived two months ago, when the Washington Post reported that Mark Siegel, a former lobbyist for Pakistan and a longtime Democratic activist, had accused Burton of threatening to cut off his access to other lawmakers last year if he didn't deliver $5,000 to the Congressman's campaign. Burton admits he solicited the money from Siegel and was disappointed when Siegel didn't deliver, but he denies making any threats. Siegel has since been called to testify before a federal grand jury.

After the Hill, a Washington newspaper, detailed Burton's many contributions from Sikh groups in the U.S., the Congressman returned $646 in donations that had come directly from religious organizations in violation of campaign finance laws. Then Roll Call, a Capitol biweekly, uncovered Burton's efforts to win concessions from the Education Department on behalf of a campaign contributor who runs a medical school in the Caribbean. And last week the Hill detailed Burton's sporadic history of praising Zaire's Mobutu after receiving contributions and honoraria from Mobutu's Washington lobbyist. The report caused Burton to return $500 to the lobbyist, who had exceeded his legal limit by that much in giving to Burton's 1990 campaign.

Burton's aides argue that Mobutu was once an American ally, which is true, and they distributed letters and speeches the Congressman made criticizing Mobutu's regime. But they had difficulty explaining why Burton urged the State Department in 1995 to grant Mobutu a visa despite his 'corrupt and dictatorial practices.' As for the charges leveled by Siegel and the Education Department official, Burton's defenders say that because both accusers are Democrats they shouldn't be trusted, and that Burton did nothing improper.

Burton is threatening to call a contempt-of-Congress vote against White House counsel Ruff, who has refused to turn over some documents to Burton's committee. But the chairman has been forced to postpone full-scale hearings at least until the fall, and some sources say they may not get started until next year. The delay suits some Republicans, who fear that Burton's hearings will turn into a partisan circus. And it leaves the spotlight to Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson, a far more presentable prosecutor, who is likely to launch Senate hearings this summer.