Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 31 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       Having missed yesterday's hearings, I returned this morning to find everyone immersed in the affairs of Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie.
       Some pretty strange affairs they were. Born in Taiwan in 1949, Trie made his way to Little Rock in 1974. There he worked his way up from busboy to joint proprietor of a Chinese restaurant named Fu Lin, which, according to Time, translates roughly as "enrich your friends." In the late 1980s, the restaurant became a favorite lunch spot with many of Arkansas' Democratic politicians, including Gov. Bill Clinton, whom Trie helped to enlarge if not to enrich.
       Yesterday's testimony was about how Trie, after quitting the restaurant business and setting up an export-import concern, funneled some $220,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Trie made these donations while receiving much larger amounts in wire transfers from one Ng Lap Seng, a k a "Mr. Wu," which is somehow the Mandarin translation of his name. Wu is a real estate developer and casino owner who lives in the Portuguese colony of Macao. Trie must have been giving Mr. Wu's money to the DNC, because his own business, Daihatsu Trading, was a complete failure.
       This morning the committee heard about another of Trie's Clinton-assistance projects: his attempt to donate more than half a million dollars to the president's legal defense fund. The day's only witness was Michael Cardozo, a well-connected Democratic lawyer who serves as executive director of the fund. Cardozo, who worked in the Carter administration as well as on the Clinton transition in 1992, presented himself as a gray eminence preoccupied with propriety and not at all subject to pressures that might be called "political," a word he pronounced with a distasteful sniff. To buttress his respectability, Cardozo brought along his wife, daughters, and approximately half the Trilateral Commission, including former Attorneys General Elliott Richardson and Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, both of whom serve on the Presidential Legal Expense Trust's board of directors.
       Cardozo told of an episode as wonderfully weird as anything that has surfaced in the scandal so far. One day in March 1996, Trie showed up at the Clinton fund's offices near Dupont Circle and announced that he was a friend of the president's from Little Rock. He handed over $460,000 in checks and money orders made out by various individuals, each in the amount of $1,000--the limit the fund had set on contributions. Obviously flabbergasted, Cardozo called in his assistant as a witness and told Trie that he would have to make sure the contributions met the fund's requirements. Trie asked that the president not be informed of his help, then announced that he was off to lunch at the Palm, a nearby restaurant frequented by lobbyists. This is illustrated on a chart created by the graphic-mad members of the Republican staff of the committee as a plate with a palm tree at the center of it, accompanied by the notation TRIE HAS LUNCH AT THE PALM WITH?
       Cardozo immediately returned $70,000 in contributions that looked obviously phony--sequentially numbered money orders with identical handwriting. He then made an appointment with Hillary Clinton, who said she barely remembered Trie from Little Rock. The fund subsequently hired an investigator to look into Trie and the source of the funds.
       Before the investigator had reported back, Trie was at the office again, this time with a bulging shopping bag. "Oh my God," Cardozo thought, "he's got a million dollars this time." In fact, it was only $179,000, which Cardozo said he could not accept. (Once Cardozo determined that the contributions were from members of the Chang Hai Buddhist cult, some of whom did not appear to have the means to contribute $1,000, he decided to return all the money.) Trie then tried to get Cardozo interested in having his investment banking firm help Trie market "novelty" items--inflatable Coca-Cola cans and airplanes manufactured in Asia. These devices blew up into stadium cushions when you punched them--and would not deflate, Cardozo said, for several days. It must be noted that it was once again Joseph Lieberman who elicited these delicious details. Lieberman neglected, though, to draw one curious connection. Last Friday's testimony was all about Simon Fireman, an illegal contributor to the Republican Party whose business was also the manufacture of inflatable toys, also in Asia. Both parties, it seems, have used blow-up toy men to launder Chinese money. Who says everybody doesn't do it?
       Richard Durbin of Illinois further drew out the essential absurdity of Charlie Trie in an attempt to suggest that he was an unlikely Chinese spy. Robert Bennett of Utah, however, was not convinced. At the end of the afternoon, Bennett announced his opinion that this was "a classic example of activities on the part of an Asian who comes out of that culture and embarks on activities related to intelligence gathering." Lest the point be lost, Bennett repeated that "in my opinion, Charlie Trie is a very typical Asian agent acting on behalf of his sponsor." Hard to say just what Bennett meant, but he managed, once again, to sound like a complete bigot.
       Thompson called a halt to this merriment with an angry statement about the administration's delayed production of important documents. Only after a day of testimony about Mr. Wu's relationship to Charlie Trie did the president's lawyers hand over records showing that Wu had visited the White House 13 times. From now on, Thompson said, he was going to send subpoenas, not polite requests for documents to the White House. The gavel fell and a furious spin war ensued outside the hearing room. Thompson said the Democrats were trying to run out the clock on his investigation. Administration spokesmen said it was all a misunderstanding, and that the Wu records had only just surfaced accidentally. Who you believe in situations like this is pretty much a matter of which side you're on. At the moment, I have no opinion.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.