WASHINGTON — The House opened its own campaign finance hearings Wednesday by announcing that two former Democratic fund-raisers are prepared to testify that President Clinton's 1992 campaign had provided an endorsement to a candidate for political office in Asia in exchange for a $50,000 contribution.
Gene and Nora Lum, who have been convicted of making illegal contributions to Democratic candidates, could offer evidence that would expand the focus of investigative attention from Clinton's 1996 reelection effort to his initial race for the White House.
The Lums, a Long Beach couple, are prepared to testify that "an individual" offered to give a large contribution to the Democrats in 1992 if the Clinton-Gore campaign would endorse the candidacy of an Asian politician, who investigators say may have been South Korean President Kim Young Sam.
But the Lums will testify only if they are granted immunity from prosecution, a request favored by House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) but opposed by the Justice Department.
The information about the Lums' potential testimony was contained in an Aug. 22 letter from their lawyer, Cono R. Namorato, to a committee lawyer. The committee made the letter public Wednesday. A Clinton campaign official signed Clinton's name on an endorsement letter for the Asian leader, according to the Lums. In response, they said, a donor gave $50,000 to a group run by the Lums, the Asian Pacific Advisory Council of the Democratic National Committee.
In other remarks certain to pique the interest of congressional investigators, the Lums said Indonesian financier James T. Riady offered them substantial sums of money if they would work with John Huang, a central figure in the Democratic fund-raising controversy. The Riadys also had offered the Lums office space, they said.
Burton said the new information "indicates that the solicitation and utilization of foreign money and conduit payments did not begin after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994. Rather, it appears that the seeds of today's scandals may have been planted as early as 1991."
David Wilhelm, manager of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, said he is unaware of any events resembling those described by the Lums.
Other than Ronald H. Brown, who then was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Wilhelm said, he could not recall any campaign "official" who might have conferred with or offered to help the Lums.
But Wilhelm said he could not rule out entirely the plausibility of what the Lums are alleging.
"I'd like to think that we ran such an iron-clad campaign that this could not have happened," Wilhelm said in an interview. "But . . . you could have had a lone ranger out there, cutting . . . deals."
Committee investigators said they intend to vote on whether to grant immunity to the Lums by the end of the month. The Justice Department has opposed giving the Lums congressional immunity, but Burton intends to push the matter.
The Lums were sentenced last month to 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to funneling illegal contributions to the campaigns of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and failed congressional candidate W. Stuart Price of Oklahoma.
The Burton committee began its hearings Wednesday with opening statements from all 44 members--remarks that illustrated the deep partisan gulf on the investigative panel.
Democrats played up the miscues that have hampered the panel's investigation and called for an investigation of both parties' activities.
"There are plenty of skeletons in closets on both sides of the aisle," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.).
But Republicans argued that abuses by the Democrats during the 1996 presidential campaign reached unprecedented levels.
"If the Congress does not commence this investigation, there will be no justice," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), vice chairman of the committee. "Janet Reno will not investigate Bill Clinton and Al Gore."
The opening session was replete with theatrics. The Democratic National Committee deployed a staff member dressed as a pumpkin outside the hearing room--a jab at Burton, who once shot a "head-like object" in his backyard in an attempt to show that White House lawyer Vincent Foster was murdered and did not commit suicide.
Burton did not take the bait. But he did rail at the White House for not immediately turning over videotapes of Clinton attending White House coffees. Burton vowed to subpoena a number of administration aides to determine whether they had withheld the tapes intentionally.
The House committee will hear today from its first three witnesses--associates of Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie who allegedly made contributions with money that was not their own.
The witnesses--Trie's sister, Manlin Foung; her friend, Joseph Landon; and Los Angeles businessman David Wang--have requested that no cameras film their testimony--a right that they have under House rules but a frustration to investigators eager for public attention.
Times staff writer David Willman contributed to this story.