WASHINGTON — Congressional committees investigating the Iran- contra affair voted Wednesday to grant limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for the cooperation of Albert A. Hakim, an Iranian-American businessman whose records are expected to show how much money was diverted from the Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan rebels.
At the same time, Senate committee members agreed to a three-week delay in the start of public hearings until mid-May to allow independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh additional time to develop criminal cases against key participants in the affair before they are compelled to testify under immunity before the congressional panels.
Hakim, an elusive figure known to have worked closely with retired Air Force Gen. Richard V. Secord in supplying arms to Iran and the contras, is understood to have records and knowledge of the complex financial transactions involved in the operation. He is the fourth person to receive immunity from the committees and the second who is an associate of Secord.
Both committees, apparently acting on a request from the secretive Hakim, refused to publicly identify the recipient of the immunity. But his name was disclosed by knowledgeable Senate committee sources, who themselves refused to be identified.
Hakim is expected to supply investigators with at least some of the Swiss bank records that Secord so far has refused to give to the committees under subpoena. The panel also has been seeking the records through diplomatic contacts with the Swiss.
"I have reason to believe that if you give him immunity, it's not an idle act," a Senate committee source said. "By pushing all of these buttons, we're going to have a full documentary record and I'm pretty comfortable that we're going to be able to trace the money. Until we look at the records, I don't think any of us can say what happened to the money."
By granting Hakim limited immunity, the committees also appeared to be putting increased pressure on Secord to step forward and testify. He has refused to do that, invoking the Fifth Amendment guarantee against self-incrimination.
Before beginning public hearings, the committees expect to grant limited immunity to about a dozen witnesses--including former White House aides John M. Poindexter and Oliver L. North, who are believed to be the only people able to testify about whether President Reagan was told of the diversion of funds to the contras. Like Secord, Poindexter and North have refused to testify, citing the Fifth Amendment.
More Precise Information
Poindexter is likely to receive immunity sooner than North, a House committee source said, because congressional investigators believe that the President's former national security adviser has more precise information than North about Reagan's involvement.
North and Poindexter have been under pressure from Congress to reconsider their refusal to testify voluntarily. Sources said the Senate committee staff has argued with lawyers for the two men that they will have less to fear from the prosecutor if they cooperate with Congress.
"By invoking the privilege they criminalized the conduct that otherwise might not have been considered as such," a key Senate committee source said. "There has been what I would call defiant conduct by various administrations, but when you start invoking the Fifth Amendment, you put a cast on it that suggests it's criminal."
The source added that former White House official Robert C. McFarlane, who has not refused to testify, probably has less to fear from the independent counsel than North and Poindexter as a result of his openness.
Delay of Testimony
Walsh met with members of the Senate investigating committee Wednesday night to explain why he is seeking a 90-day delay in public testimony by North and Poindexter. He said he needs the additional time to develop his criminal cases independently because, after receiving limited immunity, a witness cannot be prosecuted on the basis of any information disclosed in his testimony.
In response to Walsh's plea, the Senate committee offered to negotiate a compromise with him that would delay the start of hearings by three weeks, thus postponing any testimony by North and Poindexter. Walsh indicated that he was satisfied with the proposal, which will be negotiated in detail between the two committees and Walsh over the next few days.
Senate committee sources said they had expected Walsh to oppose immunity for Hakim, but the independent counsel indicated that he had not yet decided whether to do so. "Hakim is not as critical a person as North and Poindexter," Walsh said.
Case Not Jeopardized
Congressional investigators insisted that Walsh's criminal case against those involved in the scandal will not be jeopardized by granting immunity to Hakim because the independent counsel still has other ways to obtain Secord's financial records, either from Switzerland or by subpoena from Secord himself.
"Inasmuch as the independent counsel has already begun proceedings to get bank accounts from Switzerland and has made clear he's going to follow that money wherever it leads . . . I don't see the issue of taint here," a Senate committee source said.
To date, the House committee legal staff has been more reluctant to grant immunity than lawyers working for the Senate committee, apparently fearing that the prosecutor's case was not yet fully developed. But Arthur Liman, chief counsel to the Senate committee, argued that the prosecutor already has more material--including confidential White House computer messages--than normally is available to a criminal prosecutor.
"I've never had a case where we've had such a treasure of documents," said Liman, an experienced criminal lawyer. "How much more do you have to know about somebody? I think that I feel that I'm almost an eavesdropper. I feel that I'm in the minds of them."
Times staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.