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Brown’s Aides Try to Unsnarl Meeting Tales : Commerce: Lawyer, spokesman now say Cabinet secretary met with Vietnamese businessman. But they deny he took money to aid trade issue.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Spokesmen for Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown sought Tuesday to untangle apparent inconsistencies in his statements on an influence-peddling accusation, amid signs that political fallout from the allegation is causing growing concern at the White House.

Brown, accused of taking $700,000 to help lift the trade embargo against Vietnam, was quoted by his spokesman last month as saying that he had never met the Vietnamese businessman who supposedly made the offer. The allegation is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation in Florida.

But Brown’s spokesman and his attorney now acknowledge that Brown met Nguyen Van Hao three times--including once in February, when Brown was commerce secretary-designate. The spokesman attributed the earlier statement to a misunderstanding.

When the allegation was first reported in mid-August, Brown declared that “the whole thing was absurd,” said Jim Desler, Brown’s spokesman. “I took that and ran with it. I may have misinterpreted the secretary, but there was no intention to mislead.”

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Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said that President Clinton “accepts his explanation and stands by (Brown).” She said that Clinton had discussed the allegations with Brown and knew of the three meetings with Hao. But she said there was “no reason to believe . . . he has done anything wrong.”

Amid growing publicity about the investigation, some White House aides are arguing that Brown needs to address the questions personally, rather than leaving them to his spokesman and attorney. Specifically, some aides fear that press questions about the allegation might come up at a White House event that has been scheduled for today to announce a new U.S. export program, possibly embarrassing the President and marring the event.

A source familiar with the federal inquiry--who only weeks ago indicated that investigators had been unable to substantiate the allegations--said the inconsistencies in Brown’s public statements at the very least have complicated the case and would necessitate a more prolonged investigation.

Another source, close to Brown, said that the former Washington lobbyist and Democratic National Committee chairman has been “totally absorbed” by the allegation in the last month. One sign of the seriousness with which he views the situation was his choice of an attorney--Reid Weingarten, a former top prosecutor in the Justice Department unit that investigates public officials.

Myers said that White House officials, including Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty, have had regular contact with Brown to keep abreast of the investigation.

Weingarten said that Brown was introduced to Hao in November in Florida by a Haitian friend, Marc Ashton. Hao wanted Brown not only to help ease the longstanding embargo but also to help set up a company that would help Western businesses invest in Vietnam.

The second meeting between the two men was in December, in the Washington home of Lillian Madsen, who is Ashton’s sister-in-law and a friend of Brown’s. As a lobbyist, Brown represented the Haitian government.

The third meeting took place at the Commerce Department, after Brown’s Dec. 12 appointment to be commerce secretary. But Weingarten said that at the meeting, Brown flatly refused Hao’s offer.

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The allegation has been made by Ly Thanh Binh, a business associate of Hao’s.

On Monday, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) wrote Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asking him to call for hearings on the allegations against Brown. The United States also should halt moves toward normal relations with Vietnam until the case is resolved, Burton argued.

The U.S. government announced two weeks ago that it would allow U.S. firms to bid on development projects in Vietnam sponsored by international development agencies, including the World Bank.

Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson contributed to this story.

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