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03/23/98- Updated 03:29 PM ET

Witness: White House sold trips for funds

WASHINGTON - A former business partner of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown said Monday that Brown told her presidential aides instructed him to withhold documents proving the White House was selling U.S. trade mission slots for campaign donations.

Appearing in federal court, Nolanda Hill said Brown raised the possibility of destroying a 1-inch-thick packet of Commerce Department letters she said linked donations and trade mission slots. She said she advised him not to destroy the documents, but never saw them again after their discussion. She said the discussion occurred shortly before Brown died in a plane crash in Croatia in April 1996.

No such documents have been turned over to the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which is suing the Commerce Department in an effort to determine if U.S. trade slots are being sold for political donations.

Hill and Brown were in business together and she is under indictment for allegedly conspiring to divert hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies she controlled to her partner. Though not named in the indictment, Hill's partner in the company was Brown.

In a three-page affidavit released at the start of a federal court hearing in which she testified, Hill said: "I became aware, through my discussions with Ron, that the trade missions were being used as a fund-raising tool for the upcoming Clinton-Gore presidential campaign and the Democratic Party.

"Ron told me that domestic companies were being solicited to donate large sums of money in exchange for their selection to participate on trade missions of the Commerce Department," Hill's affidavit stated.

"Ron expressed to me his displeasure that the purpose of the Commerce trade missions had been and were being perverted at the direction of the White House," she added.

"I further learned through discussions with Ron that the White House, through Leon Panetta and John Podesta, had instructed him to delay the case by withholding the production of documents prior to the 1996 elections, and to devise a way not to comply with the court's orders," Hill added.

Hill said the five or six documents which she reviewed in the 1-inch-thick packet of papers were written by Commerce Department employee Melissa Moss of the Office of Business Liason.

She said Brown used profanity in describing how Moss had written such letters, apparently without his knowledge.

Under questioning by Judicial Watch attorneys before U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, Hill said that she was asked by Brown whether he could get rid of the documents and whether that would constitute obstruction of justice.

"I said it looked to me like it would be" obstruction, Hill said she replied.

"I pointed out to him that it was taking an awful big risk" in destroying the documents because copies of them existed elsewhere, Hill said on the witness stand in the lawsuit by Judicial Watch.

Hill's affidavit outlining the alleged scheme was signed Jan. 17 and was publicly released Monday in open court. In it, Hill says that Moss "based on my knowledge, ... has not told the truth in response" to "a number of questions concerning Commerce Department trade missions, as well as other representations she has made under oath.

Attempts Monday to locate Moss for comment were unsuccessful.

Hill said that she is concerned that "the Clinton administration, and more particularly its Justice Department, will try to retaliate against me" and she asked that the affidavit be kept under seal.

She said she had "a fear for my personal and my family's well-being and safety."

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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