Among the hundreds of dinners, coffees and receptions that benefited the Democratic Party last year, a single private gathering featuring President Clinton and four wealthy Asian businessmen at a luxury hotel here last July is emerging as a focus of particular intrigue.
The fund-raiser was extraordinary in several respects. One was its intimacy: The president rarely attends a campaign event with such a small group.
Another was the background of the businessmen: At least two were not legally permitted to contribute to U.S. election campaigns, and one headed a company that paid $41,000 in fines in California in 1995 for illegally laundering campaign funds to Los Angeles City Council candidates.
The strikingly successful dinner produced more than $500,000 in campaign contributions, according to internal Democratic records that were provided to reporters.
But most of that money flowed into party coffers from individuals around the country who were thousands of miles away when Clinton and the Asian entrepreneurs dined on sea bass and saffron potato mousseline.
The July 30 dinner at the Jefferson Hotel poses numerous questions for the various ongoing investigations into the Democrats’ foreign-linked fund-raising.
The White House cannot explain the participation of people barred from contributing. Justice Department and congressional investigators are investigating to see whether any laws may have been broken--specifically if foreign money destined for the Democratic Party was channeled through U.S. citizens. And an internal review being conducted for the Democratic National Committee is seeking to determine whether the party should return any of the money raised through the dinner.
“We don’t know why there were people there who couldn’t contribute, and we don’t know why there were other people who weren’t there who did contribute,” a senior White House official said.
One question is whether at least some of the individuals who contributed had business or personal ties to the four businessmen who attended the dinner.
Indeed, no single episode combines as many combustible elements as this one. It was arranged by John Huang, the former party fund-raiser who is at the center of the current campaign controversy. Among the participants was James T. Riady, the scion of an Indonesian billionaire and Huang’s previous employer. And the other three key guests primarily reside in Taiwan, the site of Huang’s unusual fund-raising trip last April, which even Clinton has said was inappropriate.
Huang has not commented on any of his activities since the fund-raising furor erupted in October. The Times was unable to reach any of the other principals at the dinner.
In addition to Riady, the other guests were Eugene T.C. Wu of Taiwan, chairman of the Shin Kong Group, a conglomerate that includes Taiwan’s second-largest life insurance company; James L.S. Lin, a Taiwan businessman and associate of Wu’s, and Taiwanese American businessman Sen Jong “Ken” Hsui, who heads companies in Taipei and Los Angeles. Riady was joined by his wife, and Wu, Lin and Hsui were accompanied by their wives and children.
Clinton sat between Wu and Hsui and across from Lin. He spoke to the group about the accomplishments of his administration, including its advancement of Asian American interests, sources said.
In addition, Huang and his wife and three senior Democratic fundraisers, including party Chairman Donald L. Fowler, attended. Neither Riady, a longtime friend of Clinton’s dating back to the time they both lived in Little Rock, Ark., in the 1980s, nor Wu were legal residents of the United States at the time of the dinner and therefore were not legally permitted to contribute.
The Wall Street Journal, which previously wrote about the dinner, reported that Hsui has extensive business ties to Wu. A spokeswoman for Hsui told the paper that he is a U.S. citizen and is active in the Los Angeles community.
But Hsui, who is president of Prince Motors Co. in Taipei, also has considerable political standing in Taiwan. He is allied with Taiwan President Lee Tung-hui and is a former member of the central committee of the Kuomintang, Lee’s ruling party.
In signing off on Clinton’s attendance, top White House officials were told by the Democratic National Committee that the event involved prominent supporters from the Asian American community and would raise more than $500,000 for the DNC.
The surprising thing was how the goal was met. Hsui contributed $150,000 to the national party and at least another $60,000 to state Democratic parties around the country, records show. But that is the full extent of the money listed from dinner participants.
Six other individuals or their companies were listed as giving money for the occasion, according to Huang’s internal documents, even though none attended.
Among them was C. Joseph Giroir, an Arkansas attorney who works with Riady and gave $25,000; a person named Susanto Tanuwidjaja, $100,000; Panda Estates Investment, Inc., a Los Angeles real estate company headed by Jessica G. Elnitiarta, whose family is also from Indonesia, $50,000; Loh Sun International Inc., a Los Angeles firm that imports Chinese cigarettes to the United States, $50,000; and Edmund Pi, a Hacienda Heights physician, $100.
Records filed by the DNC with the Federal Election Commission provide a slightly different accounting. Instead of a contribution from Susanto Tanuwidjaja, the documents show a total of $100,000 from two relatives: $80,000 from Subandi Tanuwidjaja, identified as a Diamond Bar architect, and $20,000 from Suryanti Tanuwidjaja, a writer/producer from La Habra Heights. Both have substantial business interests in Indonesia.
None of these individuals, nor any other of the above donors, could be reached to explain how they came to contribute in connection with the dinner.
Another contributor linked to the event in Huang’s files is Laurie M. Jonsson, president of a Seattle shipping company. Her donation of $131,000 on Aug. 2 is logged under the bookkeeping code for the July 30 event.
But Jonsson said in an interview that she did not know Huang or any of the other guests and that her contribution had nothing to do with the Jefferson Hotel dinner, with which she said she was unfamiliar. Jonsson said she gave $100,000 to become a designated trustee of the DNC’s Women’s Leadership Forum and the other $31,000 for general purposes.
“I’m an innocent person in all this,” said Jonsson, who has been questioned in the DNC review.
A source familiar with the dinner said one theory is that Huang may have arranged it to help Riady--with whom he remains close--and justified it by crediting unrelated contributions from some donors to the event. Even Giroir’s money came in two months before the dinner, the Tanuwidjajas’ checks two months after it.
In other meetings with Clinton at the White House, Riady discussed U.S. trade policy toward both Indonesia and China--where Riady’s company, the Lippo Group, has extensive financial interests,White House officials have acknowledged.
For the White House, one of the most troubling disclosures to emerge about the Jefferson Hotel dinner is the legal problems of a company founded by Wu and Lin. The company, Grand Sunrise Inc., agreed to pay a $41,000 fine in California in 1995 for its role in a scheme to secretly reimburse 16 people and a company for $10,500 in campaign contributions channeled to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rita Walters and council candidates Richard Alatorre and Bob Gay in 1991.
California law requires contributors to disclose the true source of any donations of $100 or more.
Grand Sunrise, a California corporation headquartered in Taipei, was seeking to construct a hotel in Los Angeles at the time. The hotel was never built.
The White House and Democratic Party have been sharply criticized for allowing people with criminal records or questionable backgrounds to meet with the president, enter the White House or attend fund-raisers and make contributions.
Miller reported from Washington and Rosenzweig from Los Angeles. Staff writer Sara Fritz in Taiwan and researcher Robin Cochran in Washington contributed to this story.