07/19/97 - 05:37 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

John Huang: Shadowy figure in finance hearings

WASHINGTON - If the Senate's summer-long scrutiny of campaign finance abuse were on Broadway, the mysterious Johnny Huang would fill that reliable dramatic ploy: the man who isn't there ... and may never be.

The emerging picture after two weeks of hearings by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee into Asian influence on America's electoral process is that Huang was an ambitious political money-man - not a spy.

Huang, said to be 51, was a controversial fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee and has become the probe's target - but no one seems to know much about the guy.

Huang, in his Commerce Department trade post in 1994 and 1995, was briefed by the CIA about U.S. trade secrets. There is circumstantial evidence he had ample opportunity to pass them on to his former employer, the Asian business conglomerate Lippo Group. But there is no evidence yet Huang did that.

There are other suggestions Huang was not a spy. At Commerce, he turned down the opportunity to upgrade his top-secret security clearance. Why? And if Huang was carrying Beijing's brief, why did he quit Commerce with all its trade information to become a money hustler for the DNC?

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has often rankled fellow Democrats by asking tough questions during the hearings. But even he admits, "All we have left about John Huang are suspicions - there's not one piece of evidence he conveyed any classified information.

"I speculate he left for the DNC either because he wanted to show the Asian-American community he could be more active in the campaign, or - if he could prove he could raise lots of money, he might get a better position in President Clinton's second term."

An aide to Democrats on the committee said Republicans have not made a compelling case Huang was anything but a "fund-raiser run amok."

"The Republicans have gone from John Huang, super-spy to John Huang, bureaucrat-run-amok in about two days," said the aide, who requested anonymity.

Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., cautions it is too early to draw conclusions about Huang's true role or motives. He notes his investigators already have uncovered enough about Huang to kindle further committee interest.

One of the clearer paper trails uncovered involves a $50,000 donation Huang sent the DNC in 1992 while he headed a Lippo real estate subsidiary in Los Angeles. The only thing Hip Hing Holdings owned was an empty parking lot, and Huang immediately asked Lippo headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, for reimbursement. He got it. This is illegal. Tuesday's hearing wasn't even over when the embarrassed DNC said it would return the 5-year-old donation.

Lieberman said another paper trail to be described before July ends will clearly show illegalities: the almost immediate reimbursement by their California temple of several Buddhist monks and nuns who were sworn to poverty yet contributed $5,000 checks to a DNC fund-raiser presided over by Vice President Al Gore. Huang arranged the event.

"Look, that's money laundering," said Lieberman. "The more important question is where the temple got that money."

The Taiwan-born Huang raised more than $3 million last year, more than half returned by the Democrats because of illegality or impropriety.

Huang has denied wrongdoing, and wants to answer what his lawyer called "the repeated, often erroneous, depictions of him and his activities." To that end, he has offered to testify in exchange for limited immunity, but senators fear it could protect him from prosecution by the Justice Department.

How did Huang get so far, so fast?

For much of his career he was a banking official, helping attract Asian-American business. His ascent to an assistant trade secretary at Commerce was promoted by the late Ron Brown and other administration officials - but federal documents indicate they were interested in his expertise in diversity matters.

Clinton at the time was urging agencies to hire 3,000 to 4,000 political appointees who "looked like America." Numerous White House and DNC documents portray Huang's appointment at Commerce - and his later move to the DNC - an important signal to the national Asian-American community.

His boss at Commerce, Jeffrey Garten, told the committee Huang's name was on a White House list for "priority" hires. Garten, undersecretary for international trade, had reservations: he told the committee he felt Huang "totally unqualified."

Garten said one reason Brown pushed so heavily for Huang's hire was that Brown "was quite adamant we have ethnic diversity" and that the top people he had hired "were all white males."

Garten ordered Huang be "walled off" from sensitive Asian trade issues, and to perform essentially administrative duties. Garten testified he was surprised to learn later Huang had received 37 CIA briefings about China and other Asian countries.

Even before Huang got to the DNC in December of 1995, he seemed entangled in the unprecedented push by Democrats to raise more than $120 million - part of Clinton's effort to match GOP fund-raising prowess. Some Democrats concede corners were cut and safeguards ignored.

"It is clear to everyone on the committee that there was improper conduct, insufficient supervision and some terrifically unseemly behavior on the part of high Democratic officials," said Jim Jordan, a spokesman for the Democrats on the panel. "That is why we are here."

Thompson said the committee has established Huang "is apparently involved in millions of dollars of illegal funding ... that part of that illegal funding was foreign funding, that part of that illegal foreign funding was Lippo funding, that the Lippo group was saying that this man was top priority for them."

By the end of the second week, some Democrats - who largely had played the role of defense attorneys - were conceding that some of Huang's activities did appear suspicious.

By Chuch Raasch and John Hanchette, Gannett News Service