Democrats live dangerously

Posted: Feb 05, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- An ebullient Terence McAuliffe invited even old critics like me to a gala reception at Washington's Union Station Friday night in advance of his guaranteed election the next day as the Democratic Party's national election. Among the uninvited was Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Even from 204 miles away in Manhattan, however, her presence chilled many Democratic celebrators. George W. Bush's inauguration Jan. 20 was like Prince Charming's kiss awakening Sleeping Beauty -- in this case reviving a slumbering White. She suddenly sprang to life to resuscitate the seemingly dormant criminal case arising from the illegal 1996 money swap between the Democratic Party and the Teamsters Union. That is not good news for McAuliffe, who has been listed as a party to conversations cooking up the plot. To elect McAuliffe party chairman is an exercise in the art of living dangerously. Bill Clinton perfected that art, and Washington real-estate and financial millionaire McAuliffe is his protege, as well as handpicked chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Even as DNC members obeyed orders from the former president and Sen. Hillary Clinton to elect McAuliffe, they worried about Republicans taking over federal investigative machinery. "Bring them on!" McAuliffe said on National Public Radio last week, adding: "Who cares? So what?" Until Bush became president, White's prosecution of the 1996 money-laundering scandal was limited to convicting William Hamilton, then the Teamsters political director. Hamilton could not possibly have been alone in masterminding $885,000 distributed to the Clinton-Gore campaign in exchange for contributions to Ron Carey's later voided election as Teamsters president. In a January 2000 letter to The Washington Post, Hamilton criticized me for suggesting that he was observing a code of silence by not incriminating others and attacked the Republican Party for seeking "to interfere with an investigation by a U.S. attorney." But that U.S. attorney, Mary Jo White, has suddenly energized the dormant case when Bush took the oath, indicting Carey for perjury. A registered independent in New York, the Clinton-appointed White is campaigning to be retained as federal prosecutor by Bush. That is considered an outrage by such Republicans as former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, who told me White could have indicted Carey a year ago but "held off to see how the election would turn out." He also contends "she made every effort to obstruct" the diGenova-managed House investigation of the Teamsters in 1999. Whatever her motives, the New York prosecutor is finally moving. The same sources who predicted to me that Carey would be indicted now say Richard Trumka, second-ranking AFL-CIO official as secretary-treasurer, could be next in White's bull's eye. Intimately involved in the Al Gore campaign, Trumka has invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about the scandal. White could next extend her prosecution to the Democratic side of the money swap, and that makes Democrats uneasy about McAuliffe, despite his protests that he was not involved. Hamilton's indictment had "the former national finance chairperson of the Clinton/Gore committee" -- that is, McAuliffe -- participating in conversations with alleged conspirators about the illegal swap. Many Democrats are disturbed that the world's oldest political party will be led by somebody whose only political attribute is the ability to raise big money and are taken aback by his cockiness in answering questions involving his financial manipulations. He may feel a Republican administration is not about to assault the leader of the opposition party -- that raising him to this lofty position protects rather than exposes him. I have been checking for more than year on progress of a Labor Department civil suit alleging the fleecing of a union's pension fund in a deal involving McAuliffe. A telephone call Friday elicited the usual non-response, indicating that word about the change of government may not have reached Labor quite yet. Will Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, boasting of her relationship with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, keep the McAuliffe case in the cold? Will a battered Attorney General John Ashcroft reject targeting the new Democratic chairman? Will President Bush be tempted, in the interests of a more harmonious capital, to resist revisiting the past? DNC members who elected Terry McAuliffe sure hope so.