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Johnny Come Often

Moneyman Chung Came Calling On The White House 49 Times, Often With His Asian Friends, And The Democrats Got $50,000 For One Visit

TIME Magazine

By Michael Duffy And Michael Weisskopf

TIME, March 3 -- Bill Clinton's Saturday-morning radio broadcasts feel like messy family reunions. White House aides bring their kids and visiting in-laws over for happy snapshots with the President. No one wears a tie. For a few brief hours each week, the whole stuffy place feels more like a home than an office. So if six Chinese businessmen in dark suits standing near the back of the Oval Office looked a bit out of place on March 11, 1995, they were. Their admission had been bought and paid for.

It's one thing to pay to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom or ride on Air Force One. It's quite another to pay $7,000 a head to watch Bill Clinton deliver an eight-minute talk on radio. But that's what Johnny Chung, no stranger to the White House, apparently did. Democratic officials and lawyers for the California entrepreneur tell Time that he gave $50,000 to the Democratic National Committee in exchange for the invitation for him and six business friends from China to watch Clinton sound off on everything from welfare reform to college loans. Exactly how the deal evolved remains unclear. What is known from documents and interviews is that then D.N.C. chairman Don Fowler met with Chung in his office March 9, 1995; that he arranged for Chung and his entourage to attend the radio address two days later, even though other D.N.C. finance officials who had seen Chung separately had turned down his request; that the Chinese business executives Chung brought along were photographed with the President after his talk; and that the D.N.C. logged in a $50,000 gift from Chung on March 17.

Fowler strongly denies that he personally intervened for Chung or discussed a donation in return for the invitation. Even so, Chung's Oval Office visit for the radio chat stands out even by the standards of Washington's cash-hungry politics. One of the city's enduring myths is that political contributions given on Monday have little to do with results on Wednesday. What happens between donor and recipient is often characterized as coincidental and tends to be handled with some finesse. It may defy all logic, but the myth is kept alive by the appearance of a carefully maintained barrier between quid and quo. But the alleged deal between Chung and the D.N.C. was an unusually explicit swap of money for access. And access, in this case, was literally the Oval Office. "It's not like Mr. Chung was dying to give the money," said his Los Angeles attorney, Brian Sun. "He was asked." Sun declines to provide details about who initiated the talk of a trade-off, how much was actually discussed and by whom.

Yet what is also clear--and disturbing--about this White House moment is that Chung was leading a delegation of foreigners, who by law are strictly forbidden to give money to the President's party. Did they help pony up the $50,000, and if they didn't, did Chung get help from anyone else? White House officials deny any connection between Chung's frequent access and his contributions to the party, which total $366,000 since 1994. They add that Clinton was puzzled by the presence of the Chinese businessmen and was uncomfortable posing with them for pictures.

The selling of the radio address is the latest setback for a White House already at the mercy of investigators it cannot control and fund raisers it claims to barely know. The White House was briefly elated last week when it learned that Whitewater special counsel Kenneth Starr was stepping down--only to discover a few days later that he had changed his mind. Even worse, Starr may soon have a doppelganger. The Chung delegation's presence at the radio address is the most vivid in a string of possible payoffs for contributions that could compel Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising practices.

And so just when Washington was trying to get a fix on John Huang and Charlie Yah Lin Trie, along comes Johnny Chung to make things really interesting. Chung, 42, who says he came to the U.S. from Taiwan with $13 in his pocket, met Clinton in 1992, when after seeing a debate between Clinton and Bush, he got the idea that government offices could be a market for his fax service. He went to Little Rock, Arkansas, where, according to the Los Angeles Times, he met Hillary Clinton after knocking on the door of the Governor's mansion.

Chung soon came to idealize the First Lady. He was possessed by a "Hillary fixation," a White House official says. The attention, if not the admiration, was mutual. Nearly half the 49 times Chung visited the White House, he was cleared by Hillary's office, according to Secret Service records. On the same week as the radio address, Chung brought his Chinese guests--heads of state-run petroleum and trading companies--to meet the First Lady and then eat at the White House mess.

Chung, in December 1994, escorted the executive of a Chinese beer company through the West Wing, carrying two six- packs and taking pictures as they went. His promotional brochures feature many photos of himself and the First Lady, including one with the beer executive, which, the New York Times reported, is on display on one of Beijing's busiest streets. "He became an irritant," says a White House official. "He took unfair advantage of the First Lady's office."

The larger, more troubling question of whether Democratic officials had illegally seeded the campaign with foreign money was intensified by a New York Times examination of Chung's business income. His attorney Sun was quoted as saying that for his D.N.C. donations, Chung used some of the $3 million he had received in consulting fees and from investors in his company, some of whom were Chinese. But Sun insisted in his interview with Time that none of the $50,000 gift exchanged for White House access came from the Chinese visitors. Instead Chung likened it to an investment-- buying face for powerful business leaders who might return the favor by including Chung in deals back in their country. "He was trying to impress these guys by showing that he had contact at the White House," explained Sun. "If giving a contribution was necessary, why not?"

Either way, concern about "foreign involvement" led New York Senator Patrick Moynihan last week to become the first Democrat to call for an outside investigation. Others are certain to follow. Reno, who has already obtained the appointment of four independent counsels to probe Clinton Cabinet officers, has so far resisted in this case. She has yet to hear "allegations of criminal activity" about senior Executive Branch officials, says a Justice Department aide, which would require her to take the investigation away from a team of department lawyers probing the fund-raising practices.

The White House no doubt agrees with her position--at least so far. But what the law requires and politics demands is often two very different things. And Clinton may find that it is simply better to bring in an outside investigator to get to the bottom of the mess than to spend some part of every week responding to the latest revelation. "An independent counsel would be a bad thing for the Administration, but this is already a bad thing," says John Barrett, who worked for Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh and now teaches law at St. John's University in New York City.

Clinton seemed to dart back and forth last week between calm and indignation, insisting that his Administration had made no deals for dollars. He continued to call for campaign-finance reform, although at a fund raiser in New York on Tuesday, he sounded as if he were addressing Green Berets going into battle, instead of wealthy diners tucking into tenderloins, when he praised donors for being brave enough to attend a $10,000-a-plate dinner at a businessman's posh Upper East Side town house. "I appreciate the fact that you came here knowing you might be targeted for the exercise of your constitutional right to stand up and support the people you believe in," Clinton said.

But if the dazed look in the eyes of White House officials is any guide, Clinton cannot let this go on indefinitely. D.N.C. chairman Roy Romer announced last week that the party will return more money to suspicious sources and donors once an internal audit has been completed. The party has already returned more than $1.5 million, most of it raised by Huang, the zealous former D.N.C. vice chairman.

New evidence surfaces almost daily that the White House easily inserted its fund-raising interests into the policy machinery of government. The Washington Post reported last week that a small group of donors from the territory of Guam sent nearly $1 million to the Democratic Party last year after Hillary visited the island briefly in 1995. Just over a year later, an Interior Department official recommended legislation that would loosen U.S. authority over the territory on such issues as immigration and labor standards--a proposal that some government officials attributed to the Guam Governor's heroic fund- raising efforts.

The role of offshore money also might have played a part in an attempt last year by the D.N.C.'s Huang to funnel $250,000 to the Democratic Party through a Virginia-based business group. The Washington Post reported that Huang asked the Asian American Business Roundtable in Fairfax to act as a conduit for the money, whose source remains mysterious. For its services, the Roundtable was to receive an 18% slice, or $45,000. But Roundtable vice president Rawlein Soberano declined Huang's offer. Huang's attorney has denied that the meeting ever took place.

For the White House, its best advantage at the moment is the setbacks the Republicans have suffered in their efforts to make something of Clinton's fund-raising transgressions. Last week Huang and former Justice Department official Webster Hubbell, pleading the Fifth Amendment, declined to provide documents subpoenaed by the House investigation led by Representative Dan Burton of Indiana. In the Senate, Democrats and even some g.o.p. moderates have complained that Senator Fred Thompson badly overplayed his hand when he asked for a $6.5 million hearing budget. Majority leader Trent Lott is already worried that the public sees the Hill probes as witch-hunts; he may, in a deal with Democratic minority leader Tom Daschle, end up shrinking the scope and duration of Thompson's hearings.

But the White House's biggest victory last week was delivered by its nemesis, independent counsel Starr. On Monday, Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, announced that it had hired Starr to be dean of its law and public-policy schools starting in August. That surprise cheered the White House and infuriated Republicans, many of whom had hoped Starr could slowly undo the Clintons' grip on power with a string of indictments in the Whitewater affair later this year. Starr insisted that the investigation would go on without him, but well-placed sources noted that without the cooperation of Hubbell, Hillary's former law partner in Little Rock, and of Whitewater partner Susan McDougal, Starr had been stymied. In other words, it was unlikely he would indict the President or his wife without the whole story.

Then, just as that deduction was sinking in, Starr reversed himself and decided to stay on as counsel indefinitely. "I think there was a fairly broad-based sense that I had made a mistake," Starr said by way of explanation. But the damage had already been done. "He spilt the milk," said former federal prosecutor Joseph DiGenova. "He's picking it up."

And that, as the proverb suggests, is almost impossible. Starr may yet bring indictments against Clinton aides who participated in a possible cover-up during the first term or perjured themselves in sworn testimony. But attention is shifting--from a scandal based partly on the hard-to-believe idea that Clinton tried to enrich himself to the easy-to-believe idea that he wanted to get re-elected. Clinton, everyone knows, cares little about making money. But when it comes to winning, he takes no prisoners.

--With reporting by James Carney, Viveca Novak and Karen Tumulty/Washington


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