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A Broadening Probe

If nothing else, the most recent testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee shows that there are unanswered questions and contradictory statements on all sides of the campaign-finance controversy.

Former Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour forcefully and capably defended himself the other day, but others involved in party fund-raising contradicted his testimony. Richard Richards, a prominent Utah Republican, said Mr. Barbour sought a $2.1 million loan from a Hong Kong businessman in 1994 to help finance a final push to claim a Republican majority in Congress

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Barbour said he never promised that the RNC would guarantee the loan made by the businessman to a Republican-backed research group. That original loan served as collateral to allow the group, the now defunct National Policy Forum, to get a bank loan of its own to repay a debt to the RNC in 1994. The national committee, in turn, used the repaid loan to boost Republican candidates.

Did this constitute illegal use of foreign money for US political campaigns? Many of the Democrats on the committee say so. That charge is far from proven, but the circumstances raise suspicions.

The same is true, with emphasis, of the Democrats' solicitations for last year's campaign. Sen. Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who is heading the investigation, said any allegations of misconduct by Barbour pale in comparison. Some of the Democrats' money has already been returned because it came from illegal foreign sources. The foreign connections of Democratic fund-raiser John Huang raise a host of unanswered questions. And White House memos raise another set of disturbing questions about just how immersed in fund-raising were the president and vice president - and how ethical and legal were their practices.

These questions demand answers. The memory gaps of key figures need to be filled in by investigators. The committee has again turned to the tool of immunization from prosecution to aid its investigation. Earlier, it rightly rejected limited immunity for Mr. Huang, who clearly could be the target of criminal prosecution. Last week, it granted immunity to five other witnesses, including four nuns from the Buddhist sect that held a California fund-raiser attended by Vice President Al Gore. This time, given the urgency of gaining new information, and the only slight possibility these witnesses will themselves be prosecuted, the tactic makes better sense.

The airing of allegations concerning Republicans, meanwhile, gives the hearings a bipartisan note that should contribute to actual bipartisanship - in the sense of teamwork that rises above party interest to a search for truth. Senator Thompson is right to urge members of the investigating panel to take such an approach and to craft legislation to reform the system. As other observers have noted, if the investigative process is mired in partisan bickering and defensiveness, it won't win the public attention its subject matter deserves.

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