New York Times


Looking for Tripwires, Ickes Heads to the Witness Stand


October 7, 1997, Tuesday

To Harold M. Ickes, the tart-tongued self-described "bottom line guy" in President Clinton's re-election campaign, his latest Congressional summons for more testimony about big-money fund raising at the White House is merely the latest round of what he dismissively terms the great Washington game of "Gotcha."

"They're trying to catch you on a perjury charge, and then they try to squeeze you," Mr. Ickes, the President's former deputy chief of staff, explained as he left the White House last winter, fully expecting the type of high-stakes, hard fought bout of Senate questioning he will face on Tuesday at the hearings into the money chase that underpinned the President's successful re-election campaign.

To inquisitors delving into his role as the watchful, efficient go-between for the President and the Democratic Party, Mr. Ickes will prove "far too smart and far too partisan," as one staff Republican put it, to criticize the White House. Politicians of both parties expect bare-knuckle partisan exchanges. Mr. Ickes has only honed this sharpness in a dozen earlier appearances before Congressional and grand jury investigators looking into Whitewater and some of his other West Wing responsibilities.

"We don't expect him to be in our corner; we see him as a hostile witness," said one Republican investigator, speaking with the knowledge of Mr. Ickes's two earlier private depositions under oath before the staff of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

Both sides say he gave as good as he got. "Ickes is at the center of what we've seen," the investigator said. "He's the eye of the hurricane."

The Republican majority's focus will be on his sweeping management of the campaign from the White House, in particular his knowledge of the President's money-raising calls and kaffeeklatsches and White House sleep-overs for big contributors.

"You don't stick them in the eye," Mr. Ickes said tersely of the care and feeding of donors in his first deposition last summer when he dashed the hopes of Clinton critics that he might take revenge on Mr. Clinton after his sudden dismissal from the staff. The deputy was let go after the election as the campaign fund-raising issue heated up, the President denied wrongdoing and Mr. Ickes proved a natural lightning rod. After that deposition, Republican senators admitted that they were wary of summoning Mr. Ickes to a public hearing because of his tooth-and-claw skills in defending against allegations of fund-raising abuses and in mounting detailed counterattacks on the Republicans' own fund raising.

Known for a flinty candor that in private features rough edged obscenity, Mr. Ickes has summarized the current state of major party fund raising as a system both shocking and legal. He rather derisively summarizes it as the "Incumbent Protection Act," a system silently treasured by incumbents of both parties, Mr. Ickes insists, and one that he was not about to ignore in competing for the President's re-election. It would take a Watergate to end campaign excesses, Mr. Ickes estimates, while denying that Mr. Clinton's high-dollar solicitation methods came anywhere near that watershed scandal.

In finally calling Mr. Ickes, committee Republicans will be providing a response to critics who argued that the inquiry could never be considered thorough unless he were heard from publicly. Privately, Republicans note that Mr. Ickes has proved to be the compulsive note-taker and document hoarder that made him an inner-sanctum legend at watching his back in the White House. But beyond the avalanche of papers he has provided, the Republicans complain, he offers little gloss in the way of personal memories.

Among other subjects Republican senators say they will press is Mr. Ickes's involvement in the roundabout process by which some Clinton-Gore contributions were funneled through state party committees, a process Mr. Ickes and the White House stoutly defend as legal. In addition, Mr. Ickes is certain to be closely questioned about whether he sought the shredding of an embarrassing memorandum on how to route donations through tax-exempt, supposedly nonpartisan organizations. On another matter, Democrats say he has denied all knowledge of the recent teamster union election fraud now being investigated for its ties to Democratic fund-raisers.

Beyond that, Mr. Ickes will be questioned about an array of Presidential fund-raisers and others who have gone abroad or claimed their right to silence. Asked in deposition about Johnny Chung, a Clinton fund-raiser and White House habitue until the allegations of scandal arose, Mr. Ickes gave a sample of his likely public testimony when he replied, "I would not know him if he came in here right now and sat in my lap."

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