DATE: Monday, August 25, 1997 TAG: 9708250088 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY WARREN FISKE, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: 141 lines
In Virginia, U.S. Sen. John W. Warner has insisted on independence from the Republican Party even when it meant putting his career on the line.
But in many parts of Washington and Louisiana these days, he's being called the worst kind of party hatchet man.
Warner stands at the head of a controversial Senate investigation into charges that Democrats and gambling interests stole the Louisiana Senate election last year.
Although Warner admits that the over-budget, five-month investigation has not turned up a ``quantum of evidence, measured by any standard, that would be sufficient to overturn the election,'' he has rejected growing demands to end the inquiry.
Angry Democrats - accusing Warner of leading a ``witch hunt'' aimed at unseating Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. - walked off the investigation in June. Now they're threatening to block consideration of anything beyond essential budget and appropriation bills if Warner hasn't backed off when Congress reconvenes on Sept. 2.
``None of it has panned out, not one charge,'' Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., recently fumed. ``Democrats are not willing to perpetuate this fraud on the Senate and the people of Louisiana.''
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called the investigation the ``meanest, most venal act of partisanship I have ever seen.'' Landrieu, who has been granted provisional status in the Senate pending the outcome, labels the inquiry a ``choreographed smear campaign meant to damage me.''
And editorials in Louisiana's largest newspaper, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, have called the inquiry ``a childish tug of war between peevish Democrats and Republicans,'' adding: ``Surely Warner has weightier things on his mind.''
Despite the furor, Warner plans to travel to New Orleans on Tuesday to conduct his second round of closed-door hearings there this month. He's issued 38 subpoenas and is offering no apologies nor predictions about when his work will be done.
As chairman of the Rules Committee, which oversees procedural matters in the Senate, Warner says he has no choice but to investigate fraud charges brought by Louis ``Woody'' Jenkins, an outspoken conservative Republican state legislator who narrowly lost to Landrieu last year.
``The Senate is my client,'' he said. ``We (the Rules Committee) have a constitutional obligation to be the sole judge of the election of those in the Senate. Until we have looked at everything reasonable, this investigation will not conclude.''
The controversy has its irony for Warner, a four-term incumbent who has been widely criticized in Virginia as disloyal to the GOP. Last year, he withstood a spirited primary election challenge fueled by party leaders who were angered by his refusal to support several socially conservative candidates nominated by the state GOP, including Oliver L. North for the U.S. Senate in 1994.
``Criticism doesn't bother me,'' Warner said.
In Louisiana, however, controversy over elections is as common as stifling heat and spicy seafood. It is a legendary land of machine politics and payoffs. When automated voting machines were brought into the state in the 1950s as a way to reduce election fraud, then-Gov. Earl Long dryly observed: ``Gimme five (electoral) commissioners, and I'll make them voting machines sing `Home Sweet Home.' ''
The state's seedy politics were immortalized in ``All the King's Men,'' Robert Penn Warren's fictionalized account of former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long: ``From the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud . . . there is always something.''
In the case of Jenkins vs. Landrieu, there are sensational claims about dead voters, duplicate voters, paid-off voters, unguarded ballot boxes and cascades of illegal money from gambling interests.
In the closest Senate race in the nation last November, Landrieu defeated Jenkins by 5,788 votes out of 1.7 million cast.
A month later, Jenkins dumped a 15-volume complaint on the Rules Committee. He alleged that rented vans and buses poured into black sections of New Orleans late in the afternoon on Election Day when exit polls showed Jenkins leading and scooped up hordes of voters, paying some to vote as many as 12 times for Landrieu.
Jenkins maintains that money for the effort was illegally funneled to Landrieu's campaign from gambling interests, who had much at stake that day on a referendum and believed that black voters would be sympathetic to their cause. The whole operation, Jenkins said, was run by the ``rogue political machine'' of New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial.
The Rules Committee appointed two lawyers - one hired by Republicans, the other by Democrats - to explore the complaints. Based on their preliminary findings, the panel voted to widen its investigation in April. It allocated $250,000 for an inquiry that was supposed to last 45 days.
Since then, four of the six witnesses who said they were paid to vote repeatedly have recanted their stories. The Jenkins campaign has acknowledged that many of its witnesses were brought forth by a convicted felon it hired to investigate voting in black precincts.
And despite Jenkins' claims that he could document 7,454 illegal votes - more than enough to overturn the election - federal auditors have found only about 150 questionable ballots, most of them caused by a computer glitch.
On June 25, the seven Democrats on the 16-member Rules Committee walked out on the investigation, saying there was nothing left to investigate. Attorney General Janet Reno withdrew FBI and auditing support for the inquiry, saying that they could assist only in bipartisan investigations.
On a 9-7 party-line vote in July, Republicans decided to continue the investigation and give Warner the power to issue subpoenas without consulting Democrats. And because the probe had already used up its original $250,000 appropriation, Republicans made another $247,500 available.
``It's a one-man show now,'' Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said after the vote.
Warner's efforts have been backed strongly by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who still pledges to shut down the investigation if ``there's not a pattern of fraud that clearly affected the outcome of the election.''
Warner seems to have his doubts that such corruption will be found. Even so, he said the investigation would still have served a purpose, noting that Louisiana has passed a number of reforms since Election Day designed to safeguard voting and close loopholes for disclosing financial contributions to campaigns.
``There have been clear violations of state and federal election laws,'' he said. ``Many of them were unintentional. It was just a case of election officials doing things the way they always have. . . . It's a very complicated set of circumstances.''
Jenkins, meanwhile, has continued to keep his campaign offices open and has raised $350,000 this year to fund his own inquiry. Earlier this month, Orleans parish prosecutors launched their own investigation into charges that Jenkins' operatives paid witnesses to lie about casting multiple votes.
Senate Democrats are mounting pressure to end the investigation. Daschle recently accused Warner of keeping it alive to curry favor and higher position with Senate Republicans.
Landrieu, a former state treasurer and daughter of legendary former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, is passing out pins and bumper stickers saying ``Free Mary.''
Warner is less than amused.
``I don't have a goal to unseat anyone. I've got a job I'm required to do, and I'm doing it.'' ILLUSTRATION: [Color Photos]
``I've got a job
I'm required to do
and I'm doing it.''
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va.,
commenting on his investigation into voting irregulatories in the
election of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. Warner, as chairman of the
Senate Rules Committee, is looking into the allegations but has
found nothing so far. Democratic critics have charged that the
inquiry is a partisan attack and that Warner - known for willingness
to buck the GOP leadership - is trying to curry party favor. KEYWORDS: INVESTIGATION
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