It was seven years ago that Johnny Chung pleaded guilty to illegally funneling money from China to President Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Today, the self-described “poster boy of the 1996 campaign finance scandal” is five months away from completing his probation, but the Taiwanese-born immigrant says he will never stop trying to make up for his criminal past, having reestablished his devotion to God.
“I’m back as a better man,” Chung said. “I’m back as a better Christian.”
Chung is now a pariah among his former political and business associates, but the 49-year-old Artesia resident used to move among Washington’s elite. He lost count of how many times he visited the White House. And Chinese businessmen and officials were once awed by his political connections and paid generously to have him arrange introductions.
Since then, Chung has pledged to stay out of the limelight and serve his local communities.
This month, Chung stood in the dimly lighted conference room of a restaurant to give a testimonial to the Christian Businessmen’s Committee of Downey. Chung has repeated this scene dozens of times in the last few years -- usually in front of a Christian group. He talked about how he neglected his religious faith during his quest for business success and political influence.
“I don’t speak about political issues anymore. I only give my Christian testimony,” Chung told the gathering of 30 people, mostly senior citizens munching on buffet fare and clacking ice cubes in their plastic cups.
Portly and smartly dressed, Chung recounted how he arrived in the United States in 1980 and started out as a busboy at a Holiday Inn. Six months later, he was promoted to assistant general manager of the hotel.
The industrious immigrant was later inspired by the success of Apple computers and decided to build his own model in his garage, calling it Pineapple. That enterprise failed after he opened a chain of stores. He shifted his focus to a technology that allowed people to fax hundreds of documents at the same time.
Chung said he made 17 trips from Los Angeles to Sacramento to persuade Gov. Pete Wilson’s office to use the service. When he finally won the contract, Chung said an aide to the governor told him, “Either you’re for real or you’re crazy.”
After that, he went from state to state trying to sell the product, eventually landing in Little Rock, Ark., where he met Hillary Rodham Clinton at the governor’s mansion, thus beginning a notorious relationship with the soon-to-be first family.
It was that connection, not his business endeavors, that proved most lucrative. Chung, described at the time as gregarious and dapper, became famous for flaunting photographs of himself with the Clintons. From 1994 to 1996, he contributed $400,000 to Democratic causes.
In 1996, The Times obtained a brochure Chung used to attract potential business clients. It contained no fewer than 10 photos of him with Mrs. Clinton and a handwritten note from the first lady thanking him “for your support and friendship.”
In time, his donations and those of others were viewed as a corrupting influence on the Clinton White House, which later distanced itself from Chung.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said in 1996 that Chung “most likely entertained business associates during the times he was in the White House” and “may have attempted to portray himself as someone who had greater influence than the facts would allow.”
In blunt testimony before Congress in 2000, Chung said he received more than $2 million from Chinese investors, using close to a fifth of it for political donations. The donations included $35,000 from the head of China’s military intelligence agency to the Clinton-Gore reelection drive.
“You have to understand, I’m a first-generation Chinese immigrant,” Chung told the Downey business group. “I wanted so bad to be part of the American political system.”
Chung could have faced 37 years in prison and a $1.45-million fine, but after agreeing to cooperate with the Justice Department, he was allowed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts for helping “straw donors” contribute to Clinton-Gore and the reelection campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass).
He was ordered to complete 3,000 hours of community service.
After he was charged, Chung said, his father presented him with a challenge, one he took to heart: “Good name or bad name, you’ve got a famous name now. Use it to honor God.”
Chung, a Quaker, declined to say what he does professionally now and invoked God throughout his talk in Downey. He steered clear of current events, asking only that people pray for President Bush. He was warmly received.
“It was powerful,” Bill Vallefuoco, 71, said of Chung’s address. “He was on the wrong road and got on the right road.”
One woman asked Chung how best to pressure the federal government to make the Ten Commandments the law of the land. He suggested writing to members of Congress and soliciting the media.
He drew laughter when he told the group that he is often asked if he’ll ever meet former President Clinton again.
“I know I’m going to heaven, but if he didn’t change -- " Chung said, knowing he didn’t need to complete the sentence to get through to the Christian crowd.
Chung’s community service mostly involved picking up trash along roadways, cleaning public toilets on his hands and knees and other undesirable chores, he said.
A man who was complaining about his own 200 hours of community service recently asked Chung what he did to receive such a harsh sentence.
“What did you do?” he asked. “Kill the president?”
Chung quipped: “No, I just gave him money.”