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House Leading With Its Right in Donor Probe

March 30, 1997|JANET HOOK and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — It is, even by House Republican standards, a remarkable collection of true believers.

The House's investigation of campaign fund-raising practices has been placed in the hands of some of the GOP's most hard-edged partisans, prompting concern by some Republicans who fear the probe will lose credibility if it becomes blatantly partisan.

Among the cast of congressional inquisitors is a conspiracy theorist, a tax-cut purist and an activist who is already urging impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

Other House fund-raising sleuths include a backbencher who once compared welfare recipients to overfed alligators, and a cadre of conservatives who think Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has strayed too far to the left.

Running the show is Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a pillar of the party's conservative wing who once staged a mock shooting in his backyard to dramatize his theory that the death of White House aide Vincent Foster was a murder, not a suicide. He now finds himself the target of a Justice Department investigation of his own campaign fund-raising, prompting calls by critics that he remove himself from the congressional probe.

Also sitting on the back benches of Burton's 48-member committee is a cheering section of like-minded activists, some of whom have seized parts of the investigation for their own.

Burton and his colleagues seem sensitive to the risks of infusing too much politics into the probe.

"There is a concern shared by all of us," said committee member David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), "that we make sure we don't appear that this is Republicans going after Democrats. We want to be credible in this investigation."

But some Republicans remain worried that Burton and the others might squander an opportunity to put Clinton on the defensive.

"Is Dan Burton volatile? Yes," said a source close to Gingrich. "Is he sometimes strident? Yes. Are people nervous? Yes. It could backfire if it was so obviously a partisan witch-hunt."

The partisanship of some committee members "does not boost the confidence of colleagues who appreciate the seriousness of the matter and want a fair, evenhanded and nonpartisan investigation," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a leading GOP moderate. Burton "has to rise above partisanship. There are more than his share of doubters."

There is, however, a solid cadre of Republican moderates and leadership allies on the committee working to soften the partisan edge of the investigation. And Burton has tapped a more low-key Republican as his lieutenant for the inquiry, asking Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach to serve as the committee's vice chairman.

Tensions between the moderate and conservative factions on the panel are expected to come to a head in April, when the committee has to decide whether to broaden the investigation's scope and to limit the powers of the chairman.

Burton and his allies on the panel have proposed focusing exclusively on White House and Democratic National Committee activities in the 1996 campaign. But some moderates have pushed for a broader investigation, like the Senate's, that would also encompass congressional fund-raising practices.

As Burton has taken on his new responsibilities as chairman, his colleagues say he has been trying to rise above his old persona as back-bench bomb-thrower.

In recent television appearances, Burton has been uncharacteristically restrained in his rhetoric--although he sometimes still lets rip with lines like, "This thing could end up being much bigger than Watergate."

Burton's ability to establish his moral authority as an impartial investigator has been dogged by controversies past and present.

For example, Burton has stuck by his belief that Foster did not take his own life even though official inquiries have ruled the 1993 shooting death a suicide.

He even staged a mock shooting, firing bullets into a head-like object to buttress his view of a cover-up. "I had a homicide expert come out to my home," he explained on the House floor in 1994. "We built up something that was similar to a head and we put a 4-inch barrel of a gun, a .38, the same kind of weapon we are talking about, into the mouth of this head-like thing we created."

Now Burton faces a new challenge just as he is beginning his investigation of Clinton's fund-raising practices: The FBI is investigating Burton's own money-raising, which has focused heavily on the Pakistani, Cuban and Sikh communities. The bureau has opened an inquiry into allegations by a former lobbyist for Pakistan, Mark A. Siegel, that Burton vowed to retaliate if Siegel did not raise $5,000 in campaign money.

Siegel will testify this week before a federal grand jury. Joseph DiGenova, a prominent Republican attorney who is representing Burton, said the chairman has not been contacted by authorities on the matter.

"This is an allegation of the most unsubstantiated kind," said DiGenova, insisting that Burton would hold onto his chairmanship.

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