FBI Details Democratic Fund-Raising Abuses
Newly obtained FBI documents show that Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin “Charlie” Trie smuggled a wealthy Taiwan businessman using a false identity into the White House to meet President Clinton.
The incident is among numerous revelations in a confidential summary of Trie’s statements to federal investigators that are certain to reverberate during an increasingly contentious election-year debate over campaign finance abuses.
The episode, regarded as a serious breach of presidential security by federal officials, occurred at a White House holiday party Dec. 13, 1996--days before Trie fled the United States to avoid authorities investigating fund-raising improprieties.
Trie, a former Arkansas restaurateur and friend of Clinton, was interviewed extensively by FBI agents after he pleaded guilty in May to election law violations and agreed to cooperate with investigators. He also named a new source of secret foreign funds that were funneled into the last presidential campaign.
A 74-page FBI report obtained by The Times offers the first detailed account of illicit foreign fund-raising by Trie, one of the most notorious financial supporters of Clinton’s 1996 reelection effort.
Trie, for example, revealed for the first time the roles of Tomy Winata, a Jakarta billionaire with financial ties to the Indonesian army and of an aide to the chief of Chinese military intelligence. Trie said Winata sent him $200,000 in travelers checks to “help out” with donations, a portion of which Trie used to make illegal contributions to the Democratic National Committee and reimburse donors to the Clinton legal defense fund.
Federal law prohibits campaign contributions from foreign sources as well as hiding the true identity of donors.
Trie’s account also could further embarrass Vice President Al Gore by shedding new light on a particularly damaging event from the Democratic front-runner’s past. Trie told the FBI that he first suggested either Clinton or Gore visit the Hsi Lai Temple in Southern California, specifically to raise political funds.
Trie called Democratic fund-raiser John Huang with the proposal, he said, adding that they shared an understanding with “Asians in general that there was a lot of money” at the temple.
Gore, surrounded by saffron-robed nuns and monks, attended a luncheon at the Hacienda Heights temple that raised $140,000 for the Democratic National Committee--a visit that came to epitomize the 1996 fund-raising scandal. The vice president later said that he did not know the event was a fund-raiser.
Both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican winner in last week’s New Hampshire primary, and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, Gore’s Democratic rival, have hammered the vice president for his role in 1996 fund-raising excesses.
Responding to Trie’s account of the genesis of the temple event, Laura Quinn, Gore’s communications director, said: “We have nothing to add. That doesn’t change any of the facts as they relate to the vice president.”
Trie’s limited statements about First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to run for the U.S. Senate in New York, suggest that she, too, had a friendly relationship with him. For example, he said that Mrs. Clinton personally led an impromptu tour of the White House living quarters after recognizing Trie’s wife among a group of Chinese visitors in 1995. Trie also said he gave the first lady a pearl necklace as a gift.
A spokeswoman for Mrs. Clinton declined to comment.
The FBI report is missing about one-third of its original content, deleted to protect grand jury secrecy and ongoing criminal investigations. Trie completed 17 interviews with agents and government attorneys between May 28 and Oct. 27.
Trie’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
One of the report’s most striking disclosures is Trie’s acknowledgment that he used false identification to spirit a foreign businessman into the White House under the noses of Secret Service agents.
Trie invited Chich Chong “Simon” Chien, the Taiwan chairman of TransCapital International and a potential client, to a White House holiday dinner for DNC supporters.
Trie explained to FBI agents that he “did not want people thinking that he was bringing another foreigner into the White House.” So he asked his Little Rock, Ark., secretary to send the driver’s license of her husband to Washington. Trie believed that using the Arkansas license of Reynaldo Mapili, a Filipino American postal worker, would allow Chien to “pass as an American citizen.”
Routinely, visitors to the White House must provide their names, birth dates and Social Security numbers in advance for background checks. Upon arrival at Secret Service checkpoints, photo identification is required.
Nonetheless, Trie succeeded in gaining Chien entry as Mapili, even though the Taiwanese businessman bore “no similarity whatsoever” to the Little Rock mail carrier, said Charles G. LaBella, former Justice Department prosecutor.
On the receiving line inside, Trie said, he apologized to Clinton for the uproar that his fund-raising efforts had caused, saying: “Sorry for all the trouble.”
He recalled that the president simply responded, “I’m used to it.”
Trie then introduced his tuxedoed guest as Simon Chien, who was photographed shaking hands with Clinton.
‘Everyone Knew What He Did’
Trie’s gambit was all the more brazen given that his name had surfaced by then in prominent news stories about suspected foreign fund-raising.
Yet, according to Trie’s account, the president expressed no alarm, or even surprise, at seeing him in the White House with another foreign visitor.
A week later, Clinton acknowledged at a news conference that it had been “clearly inappropriate” for a previous Trie guest--Wang Jun, the head of a Chinese weapons trading firm--to attend a White House coffee reception earlier that year.
White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said Friday: “As we have said before, the president had no knowledge of, or reason to suspect, problems in campaign fund-raising. Nothing in the many investigations since that time has demonstrated otherwise.”
Trie’s subterfuge was not discovered until late 1997, when the Justice Department’s Campaign Financing Task Force questioned Mapili and obtained White House photographs. But investigators could not identify Trie’s guest.
Justice officials sent a copy of the photo to Clinton, but the president could not identify Chien either.
LaBella, the former task force chief, said in a telephone interview that the incident was “a very significant matter because of the breach of White House security and its connection to an event involving fund-raisers.”
Investigators were so concerned that a major fund-raiser, with such apparent ease, could circumvent presidential security that LaBella briefed Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. “She took it very seriously too,” he recalled.
Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin said: “We’re not going to comment on what information may or may not have been passed to us.” Kennedy said the White House does not comment on security matters.
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin declined to comment.
In a footnote to the incident, the FBI report shows that Trie got what he sought in bringing Chien to the White House. After being photographed with Clinton, Chien signed a contract with one of Trie’s companies.
Chien could not be reached for comment.
The Justice task force was formed early in 1997, in part to determine if foreign money interests--including the Beijing government--tried to influence U. S. elections. Trie acknowledged that he discussed fund-raising in China “because everyone knew what he did” in the United States.
Trie said that, while he did not solicit Chinese officials, substantial amounts of his political donations were underwritten by financiers with major business interests in China.
All donations linked to Trie later were returned, Democratic officials say.
It was the use of straw donors at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights that turned Gore’s April 29, 1996, visit into a political quagmire. The temple itself reimbursed many of the donors who wrote checks to the Democrats.
Trie, whose role in arranging the event was not known previously, said he first visited the hillside temple in late 1995. At the time, a group of nuns asked if he could get Clinton to attend a temple event.
Trie replied “if the temple could raise enough money, he might be able” to do so, the FBI report says.
Because Gore had toured the temple headquarters in Taiwan, the nuns pressed for an appearance by the vice president as well. Trie, who said he had met Gore on several occasions but never discussed fund-raising with him, told the nuns that he would try.
Trie called DNC fund-raiser Huang and said “individuals associated with the Buddhist religion could help the Democratic national party with voting and raising money.” He urged Clinton or Gore to visit.
A few weeks later, Huang asked Trie if Maria Hsia, a longtime fund-raiser for Gore and a member of the temple, could receive credit within the DNC for arranging the event. Trie stepped aside for Hsia.
She later was indicted on election law violations, including her alleged role in the reimbursement of temple donors. Hsia, who has denied any wrongdoing, faces trial this month in Washington.
Huang’s attorney, Ty Cobb, said: “I’m not aware of any facts that support this version.”
When the temple appearance was first disclosed, Gore said he believed it was a “community outreach” event, but later acknowledged that he knew it was “finance-related.” The DNC said the event should not have occurred at a place of worship and returned many of the donations.
Bradley suggested last week that Gore still has not come clean about the episode, and McCain has excoriated the vice president for asking “monks and nuns to pay thousands of dollars to violate their vows of poverty so they could spiritually commune with him.”
Trie’s Long History With Clinton
Taiwan-born Trie, 50, immigrated to the United States in 1976, settling in Little Rock, where he became part owner of a Chinese restaurant near the Arkansas Capitol. Trie, who became a U. S. citizen in 1984, said Clinton dined at his restaurant frequently and they became friends.
When Clinton confided his plan to seek the presidency, Trie said, he passed the word with calls to both the Chinese and Taiwan consulates in Houston. He later solicited “fund-raising help” from the Chinese consulate, but an official said Beijing could not get involved in U. S. elections and “warned him that the phone line was tapped.”
Trie launched an international trading business in 1992, and Clinton wrote to wish him success in his new venture a week after becoming president-elect. Shortly after the inauguration, Trie visited Clinton at the White House and opened his own Washington base in a Watergate apartment. In April 1996, Clinton appointed Trie to an advisory commission on U. S.-Pacific trade.
Trie’s trading venture sought to capitalize on his links to Clinton. He told the FBI that he received special treatment from the Beijing government--which waived normal joint-venture arrangements required of other foreigners--and he formed many high-level business relationships in China “because I was a friend of Bill’s.”
Trie denied using his White House access to influence U. S. foreign policy. He said his conversations with Clinton focused on the days when both were in Little Rock.
But there were exceptions. Trie tried to call Clinton in 1995 out of concern over U. S. plans to send warships into the Taiwan Strait. Washington regarded the Beijing missile tests in the region as threats to Taiwan, but Trie considered the U. S. response provocative and harmful “for Taiwan, for China [and] for Clinton.”
On the phone from his Watergate apartment, Trie reached Nancy Hernreich, manager of the Office of the President, who knew of Trie’s warm relationship with Clinton. She said the president was traveling, but she arranged for someone to take Trie’s message. Clinton later responded with a note, reassuring Trie that U. S. naval maneuvers were “not intended as a threat to the PRC.”
Trie also tried to sway policy opinion on Clinton’s trade advisory commission, arguing at a meeting in June 1996 that China’s harsh repression of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square a decade ago should not prevent extending most-favored-nation trade status to Beijing. Trie said China “was right to suppress the students” because its government was in jeopardy, the FBI report noted.
While Trie denied that he had any contacts with intelligence agents in Asia, he acknowledged to FBI agents that he met with a number of military and political leaders and formed business partnerships with an officer in China’s army, a woman identified in the FBI report as Lin Ruoqing. Trie said she provided him a car in Beijing with license plates of the People’s Liberation Army Logistics Department.
Trie also said he recommended Lin for membership in the DNC’s business leadership forum. But after she returned from a U. S. visit, Lin was arrested in China and later accused of corruption. She never joined the DNC group.
Trie became a major fund-raiser midway through Clinton’s first term. From 1994 to 1996, he brought in more than $1.2 million in contributions to various Clinton causes, making him one of the president’s biggest financial supporters. Much of the money, Trie conceded to investigators, came from foreign associates whose identities were concealed behind straw donors.
Trie’s primary foreign sources included Winata, the Indonesian financier; Suma Ching Hai, the spiritual leader of a Buddhist sect in Taiwan bearing her name, and business partner Ng Lap Seng, a Macao gambling resort owner with extensive business interests in China.
An attorney for Ng Lap Seng declined to comment.
Winata managed business interests of the Indonesian army and was the partner of one of then-President Suharto’s sons in a satellite communications enterprise and a business associate of Liu Chao-ying, who had close ties to the general in charge of China’s military intelligence.
Liu gave another Democratic fund-raiser--Johnny Chung of Torrance--$300,000 under orders from the military intelligence chief to help Clinton’s reelection, according to Chung’s grand jury testimony.
Winata, who did not return a call to his office, is now the second Indonesian billionaire to figure in the scandal. James Riady, scion of the founder of the Jakarta-based Lippo Group, was a longtime friend and supporter of Clinton.
Trie met Winata in 1994 at an Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation session in Seattle. Thereafter, when Winata visited the United States, he paid Trie’s expenses to travel with him. Winata asked Trie to introduce him and other associates to the president.
In early 1996, Trie tried to arrange for Winata to sit with Clinton at the head table during a DNC fund-raiser in Washington. But Winata held out for “a more private meeting,” which apparently never happened. Winata sent two top aides to the political event at the Hay-Adams Hotel--along with $200,000 in travelers checks issued by a Jakarta bank.
Trie immediately donated at least $25,000 of that money to the DNC. The Indonesian source was disguised, Trie said, by funneling the cash through bank accounts of Trie’s sister and her boyfriend. Trie stashed the remainder in his bank safety deposit box.
Trie said he raised at least $500,000 for the DNC event from Winata and other sources--nearly three times the amount credited to Trie in official DNC records. Much of the foreign funds were laundered through bank accounts of Asian Americans, many of whom did not attend the dinner.
The day after the fund-raiser, Trie arranged for 17 people to tour the White House, including the Winata aides. Later, he set up a White House tour for Winata’s wife and two children.
Trie met Suma Ching Hai early in 1996 on a trip into the mountains of northern Taiwan to hear her preach.
“You are a friend of Clinton,” she said. “I like him. He’s a good man.”
She asked how she could help the U. S. president. Trie suggested giving $50,000 to Clinton’s legal defense trust fund, which was in desperate need of money. Soon after, a disciple handed Trie a canvas bag with wooden handles in which he found religious materials--and half a million dollars in cash.
Concerned about carrying so much money, Trie stuffed his jacket into the bag to conceal the currency and flew to Hong Kong.
It was, he told the FBI, “too much money.” While confident he could find 50 straw donors to each make $1,000 maximum donations, Trie said he doubted that he could find 500. He said he then decided to return the bag and cash.
Hai subsequently raised $639,000 from followers in New York and San Francisco, which Trie delivered to the trustee of Clinton’s defense fund. The donations later were rejected out of concern that the money came from foreign sources.
Messages left with a spokeswoman for Hai were not returned.
Trie also told the FBI that in June 1994, he spent $100,000 provided by his Macao partner to buy a table and two seats at the head table at a presidential gala in Washington. But Trie said he was embarrassed to find that guests he wanted to impress were relegated to the back of the Hilton Hotel ballroom.
Trie said he slipped “$700 or $800 cash” to Terence R. McAuliffe, then DNC finance chairman and more recently a fund-raising powerhouse for Clinton.
The result, according to the FBI report: “Trie’s guests were placed at a better table.”
McAuliffe said Saturday that Trie chipped in money after the event to help pay for a staff party, not to upgrade seats for his guests.
Times researcher Nona Yates contributed to this story.
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