Indictments said near in campaign finance probe

WASHINGTON - A Justice Department task force expects to soon seek indictments of two figures in the campaign finance affair for arranging contributions that disguised the identities of the real donors, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

Charges against two people who arranged so-called conduit contributions might be brought after Thanksgiving or early in December, according to two officials, who requested anonymity.

"The task force is trying to get indictments together," a senior official said, requesting anonymity. "One way to move this along is to indict and put pressure on people to cooperate."

Two Democratic party fund-raisers, Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie and Maria Hsia, have been linked in testimony at congressional hearings this year to schemes designed to launder contributions through straw donors. Neither have cooperated with investigators, but lawyers for both have defended their conduct as legal.

Hsia's attorney, Nancy Luque, said she was aware that the Justice Department was investigating her client's fund-raising activities. But "I have no reason to believe an indictment is imminent and believe she will be vindicated."

Using straw donors to conceal the real source of illegal contributions, such as donations that exceed legal limits or come from foreign donors, normally brings felony charges of conspiracy and false statements. The law requires that donors' names be reported to the Federal Election Commission.

The straw donors, or conduits, usually are not subjected to criminal prosecution if that is their only crime, but they remain liable for civil fines from the FEC.

A federal grand jury has been meeting here in the case for months.

Trie, a former Little Rock restaurateur, Democratic party fund-raiser and long-time friend of President Clinton, has gone to China rather than answer investigators' questions. He has told interviewers he has no plans to return to the United States.

On Monday, Attorney General Janet Reno asked Chinese Justice Minister Xiao Yang for "the full cooperation of the Chinese government with the investigation being conducted by our campaign finance task force." The task force is looking into whether there were illegal contributions from China.

Justice Department officials said Tuesday that Xiao deferred responding to this request to a later date, but they were not optimistic of getting any help. The Chinese have denied allegations that they mounted a scheme that used campaign donations to sway the U.S. political process.

Senate investigators produced records at hearings last summer showing that Trie received more than $905,000 in wire transfers from his Asian business partner.

Investigators for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee alleged that Trie used the money to donate more than $200,000 to Democratic causes or to reimburse other donations.

Trie's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, replied in a statement that most of the money "was spent on routine and legitimate business expenses" for their affiliated companies.

Trie's sister, Manlin Foung, told a House committee last month that she was twice reimbursed by her brother for making donations to Democratic Party fund-raisers. Foung testified that on one occasion she gave $10,000 for Clinton's birthday celebration in New York City in August 1996, which she did not attend. Foung said her brother reimbursed her that same day for the money.

The Senate committee also heard testimony indirectly linking Trie to a reimbursement scheme. Two women testified that they wrote checks to the Democratic National Committee so Trie's business partner, Ng Lap Seng, could attend a Feb. 20, 1996, fund-raiser with President Clinton.

Senate investigators said the donations were solicited and reimbursed by Keshi Zhan, a part-time employee of Ng and Trie. The donations were made shortly after Trie received a $150,000 wire transfer from Ng's Asian bank account.

Three Buddhist nuns told the Senate committee that the Hsi Lai Temple near Los Angeles reimbursed a group of monks and nuns for $55,000 in donations they had made to the Democratic National Committee. The donations were made after a controversial April 29, 1996, fund-raiser attended by Vice President Al Gore. The event was organized by Democratic fund-raisers John Huang and Maria Hsia, an immigration consultant.

The three nuns testified that the day after the event Hsia asked the temple to raise additional money to help Huang reach his fund-raising goals for the event. One temple official, Venerable Yi-Chu, asked several monastics to each write $5,000 contributions for which they were later reimbursed, the nuns testified.

At the Senate hearings, investigators produced exhibits showing that temple officials disguised $130,000 in donations to Democrats that were made at Hsia's behest, some dating to 1993.

By The Associated Press

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