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Were Ron Brown's Trade Missions For Sale?

[TIME Magazine]

By Richard Lacayo

(TIME, November 11) -- For any export-oriented American business, an invitation to join the U.S. Commerce Secretary on one of his trade missions abroad is like a World Series ticket--the hottest seat in town, and something you just might pay top dollar to get. In 1992 Bill Clinton promised that his Administration would fight hard to help American companies win foreign business. That's a worthy goal of trade missions, which provide selected CEOs with priceless connections to the corporate heads and government officials of other nations.

But under the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown were the Democrats "selling" seats, using those missions to reward party donors? And did the trips serve the dual purpose of drumming up more donations abroad? Those are the questions at the heart of the lawsuit filed by the nonprofit, conservative group Judicial Watch, Inc. The suit became an election issue last week, when Judicial Watch lawyers were allowed to conduct a videotaped deposition of Democratic fund raiser John Huang. In addition, thousands of pages of Commerce Department documents have been turned over to the group.

The Commerce Department papers clearly indicate that many corporate contributors expected their money to earn them special consideration when seats were being handed out on the Secretary's plane. In a letter addressed to Deputy Assistant Commerce Secretary Jude Kearney, C. Payne Lucas, a development-organization executive, suggests that he should be added to a mission headed for South Africa in 1993 because he contributed $2,000 to the election campaigns of both Clinton and South African President Nelson Mandela. In another, Philip Verveer, a politically savvy Washington attorney, recommends a place on a 1994 mission to India for William Ginsberg, CEO of Cellular Communications International, based in New York City. "Ginsberg was an early financial supporter of the Clinton/Gore campaign," Verveer writes.

These missives occasionally show federal officials urging their superiors to favor donor executives. In one letter, Reta Lewis, a political affairs official at the White House, urges that a spot be found for Gerald McGowan, a partner in a Washington law firm, on a trade mission to Indonesia or India. For one thing, Lewis points out, McGowan qualifies as a D.N.C. "managing trustee," someone who gives $100,000 a year to the Democratic National Committee.

But did the White House always give its funders the heavy preference they expected? That's less clear. Research from another watchdog, the Center for Public Integrity, indicates that nongivers outnumbered givers on trips 2 to 1. Records compiled by the group show that in the early 1990s, at least 187 firms (including Time Warner, parent company of TIME's publisher) took part in trade missions sponsored by Commerce. Of those, 67 firms, or 36%, were Democratic Party donors. And many of those gave money to the G.O.P. as well.

With reporting by Viveca Novak and Mark Thompson/Washington


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