Chief of Bank That Paid Mayor Tells His Side of It

Times City-County Bureau Chief

Henry Hwang did not want to talk about Tom Bradley.

He talked about how he believes the press has given him "a negative image" since his small Far East National Bank surfaced in the news as having paid the mayor $18,000 for serving on the bank's Board of Advisers. He talked about how the publicity had damaged his plans to run for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.

"If people can make so big a thing out of nothing, then how can a guy like me, who wants to run for public office, ever escape this?" he said. And he talked about his charity, a service center he helps support in Chinatown: "We're doing something good and positive in this community, and we help 14,000 refugees and immigrants coming into this country."

But finally, at the end of his only press interview, the 60-year-old bank chairman could not hold back discussing a fascinating aspect of his immigrant-to-successful-businessman life--how he hired the mayor of America's second-biggest city for $18,000 to help bring business to his bank. Bradley held the position for about a year before resigning and returning the money in a building storm of controversy over his financial interests.

As Hwang told it in the interview Friday, it was something like hiring a high-class corporate representative.

What was the purpose of putting Bradley on the committee, he was asked.

"Very simple, very simple," Hwang said. Well, basically, we talk to . . . any people who can . . . that can be helpful to us and if they can be helpful to us, you know, in doing different things, like he's in foreign trade, whatever, you know, you generally have to pay people for things . . . for, you know, for services rendered in the future, whatever, in different aspects of things.

"So, that's normal. For (the) bank to go out, look for business, talk to different people, especially people in a position of influence, that's not a big deal."

It was unusual for Hwang to be talking to a reporter. In fact, he had steadfastly refused interviews since the furor erupted about him paying Bradley to serve on the bank's Board of Advisers during 1988.

But he was angered over a profile of him that appeared in The Times last Sunday, which quoted his critics as well as some of his friends. Hwang had declined to be interviewed by reporters before the story, but this week, he said he wanted to have his say.

Ground Rules

The ground rules were simple: He would not discuss Bradley.

Hwang's press representative, Sandra Conlon, met a reporter in the outer office of the corporate headquarters of the bank in an office building at 1st and Figueroa streets. Hwang, a short, energetic man in a nicely cut double-breasted suit, greeted his visitor in a friendly manner.

Hwang was born in Shanghai and came to the United States in 1948 as his native land was falling to the Communists. He attended USC, where he met his wife, Dorothy, a pianist who teaches music at the university.

Their son, David, is a playwright who won a Tony for his play, "M. Butterfly." This month, the Hwangs were in London to see the play's opening there.

They also have two daughters, Mimi, a cellist, and Grace, a schoolteacher.

Hwang started in business as a certified public accountant, and then in the 1970s started his bank. Far East had deposits of $4.6 million when it began in 1974. Last year, it reported assets of $176 million.

And, he had become a big campaign contributor. From 1983 through March, 1989, he donated $13,800 to political campaigns. His bank also became one of several local banks that had deposits of city funds.

Earlier this year, Hwang, saying he wanted to help his adopted country now that he was older and well established, declared his intention to run for lieutenant governor.

Grievances Revealed

For an hour, Hwang talked about his damaged campaign, his grievances against the press, his bank and his charities.

Then the reporter asked, "I have a couple of questions on the Mayor Bradley thing I'd like to ask you."

"Ask me," replied Hwang. "I'm not sure I can answer them, but I'll try, OK?"

Bradley was paid $18,000 a year?

(The mayor was paid $18,000 last year.)

"Yeah," he said, "$18,000 for that year."

Was Bradley the only one of the 46 Board of Advisers members who was paid?

"He was the only one," Hwang replied.

First, Hwang declined to answer, although later in the interview he explained how Bradley was paid to solicit business for the bank.

Did the mayor solicit business for the bank on city-financed trade missions he makes to Asian nations?

"Hopefully, hopefully," said Hwang, laughing.

Of the payments, Hwang said: "It's really nothing. Really nothing. Believe me. I mean, I don't like to do anything that will be unethical or unlawful or something like that because we are very successful.

"We don't need to pay the mayor this money to survive or to be rich or something like that," he said. "We have been successful a long time. So it's really nothing. But you know . . . it's something because of elections."

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