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Gavel To Gavel: Fund-Raising Hearings

GOP Unearths Bogus '92 Donation

Democratic senator sides with Thompson on China's involvement in U.S. politics

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

WASHINGTON (July 15) -- Republican senators leading a probe into campaign finance abuses have unearthed solid evidence suggesting John Huang arranged an illegal $50,000 donation to the Democrats in 1992. Meanwhile, a key Democratic senator said he agrees there was a Chinese government plan to influence the 1996 elections.

As the Senate hearings resumed Tuesday, members heard from Juliana Utomo, a former employee of a Lippo affiliate called Hip Hing Holdings Ltd. in Los Angeles. Utomo confirmed that the holding company sought reimbursement from the Lippo Group in Djakarta, Indonesia, for a $50,000 contribution that it made to the Democratic National Committee.

The company's Aug. 17, 1992, memorandum sought $146,500 in expense reimbursement from Djakarta, including $50,000 for what officials listed as "DNC Victory -- Contribution."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said the memorandum "certainly looks like the movement of foreign money into an American campaign in 1992." Within hours, the Democratic National Committee announced it would return the $50,000 contribution to Hip Hing, just as it has been forced to return other improper donations from the 1996 campaign.

Utomo testified that Hip Hing's only asset was an empty parking lot in Los Angeles, but the company made political contributions and Huang (pronounced "wong") -- who later became a Democratic Party fund-raiser -- coordinated them. Utomo said that although she made out the check, she did not know what the initials "DNC" stood for when she did so.

Hip Hing stayed afloat, Utomo indicated, by regularly requesting "capital injections" from Lippo in Djakarta. Utomo said they would send requests to the Djakarta headquarters, but added, "I don't know exactly the source." She identified financial statements that showed the L.A. company lost $482,000 in 1992 and $493,000 in 1993.

A Chinese plan to influence 1996 elections?

Meanwhile, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate panel, got some support from Lieberman, who indicated, after attending an FBI briefing Monday, he agreed with Thompson's view there was a Chinese government plan to influence the 1996 U.S. elections.

"I am here to tell you based on what I heard yesterday, I conclude there was in fact a Chinese government plan to move money into America's congressional elections last year, with the clear intent to affect America's policy towards China," Lieberman told reporters. "Whether that conclusion can be proven either in the committee hearings or in a court of law remains to be seen. But in fairness to Senator Thompson, based on events I have seen, I wanted to say what I have said now."

Much of the day's questioning came from Chief Counsel Michael Madigan and Minority Chief Counsel Alan Baron, and their inquiries were more focused than last week's questioning by senators of ex-Democratic Party official Richard Sullivan.

Both lawyers walked Utomo through a series of exhibits and memorandums, trying to establish exactly how money flowed from Lippo to its affiliated firms in the United States, and how the companies were able to make political contributions.

Utomo said she never discussed contributions with Huang while she worked with him, and never made contributions herself.

The committee also heard from Thomas R. Hampson, president of Search International, a Chicago business research firm, who described the Lippo Group conglomerate and its close ties to China and a Chinese-government owned firm called China Resources.

"It is well established in the public record that the government uses China Resources as an agent of espionage," Hampson said. "It's kind of like a smiling tiger. It acts friendly but it's very dangerous."

A $100,000 meeting?

At the day's start, Thompson revealed that new documents from the Democratic National Committee show that a British citizen offered to make a $100,000 contribution to the Democrats in 1995 in exchange for a meeting with national security officials to discuss U.S.-Taiwan policy.

The documents showed that DNC chairman Don Fowler sought a White House meeting for the British husband of the contributor, and the White House confirmed that the British citizen, a Hong Hong financier named Eric Hotung, met with then-Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, in October 1995.

Hotung's wife Patricia, who is an American citizen, donated almost $100,000 to the DNC over the next few weeks, but the White House denied any quid pro quo arrangement.

In a statement, White House Special Associate Counsel Lanny Davis said: "We categorically deny that this meeting was arranged in exchange for a contribution or a commitment of a contribution."

In other testimony, Lippo Bank board chairman Harold Arthur testified that "friendship" motivated the Lippo holding companies and the Riady family to make donations to the Democrats and Bill Clinton during 1991-93.

Arthur, who described himself as "a good Republican," praised Huang as honest and personable and called the allegations that he was a spy for either the Lippo Group or China "hogwash." Some senators have suggested Huang may have passed secrets to Lippo or China during his time as a Commerce Department employee, before he joined the Democratic National Committee.

A long string of witnesses

The hearings resume at 10 a.m. EDT Wednesday. Other witnesses expected to testify this week include former White House personnel officer Gary Christopherson and current or former Commerce Department officials Jeffrey Garten, William Ginsberg, Paul Buskirk, Robert Gallagher and Timothy Hauser. Also scheduled to testify is CIA official John Dickerson, who briefed Huang while he worked the Commerce Department. Dickerson, an intelligence liaison officer at Commerce, is expected to testify from behind a screen to keep his appearance hidden.

While the focus this week is on Huang's activities, whether the panel will hear from Huang himself remains in doubt. Through his attorney, Huang has offered to testify in exchange for limited immunity for any election law violations he may have committed. Thompson has said he does not believe the committee can legally offer anything short of full immunity.

Partisan jousting continues between Republicans and Democrats on the committee over whether Thompson went too far in his opening statement on the alleged Chinese government plan to influence U.S. elections. Sen. John Glenn, the committee's ranking Democrat, argued that the information did not support Thompson's interpretation.

Eight senators on the committee met Monday to try to sort out the dispute, without success, although the session did lead to Lieberman's statement.

The committee is looking at abuses and the role of overseas contributions during the 1996 elections, and also at larger questions of how the U.S. finances its political campaigns.

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