07/29/97 - 10:20 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Senate committee hears about overseas money

WASHINGTON - An FBI agent described Tuesday how Arkansas restaurateur Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie followed his friend, President Clinton, to Washington and began a controversial fund-raising effort that used overseas money wired to him to underwrite large Democratic donations.

"Trie believed that he could capitalize on his friendship with the president and members of his staff who Trie knew from Little Rock," Agent Jerry Campane testified at the start of the fourth week of Senate hearings into fund-raising abuses.

Armed with charts outlining complex financial transactions, Campane explained how Trie used some of the $905,000 wired to him from Asia from business partner, Ng Lap Seng, also known as "Mr. Wu," to underwrite donations to the Democratic National Committee.

Some of the money was used to pay for $220,000 in donations made by Trie and his wife; others were used to reimburse donations made by associates. It is illegal to use foreign money to make U.S. political donations or to disguise donations in the name of others.

"The contributions can be connected with specific wire transfers. Mr. Trie relied on Mr. Wu's foreign wire transfers to make contributions to the DNC," Campane testified. He added that without some of the transfers, Trie's bank accounts could not have covered some of the donations.

Campane said he had no evidence that the president, vice president or the DNC knew about the source of the funds.

Trie, a longtime friend of Clinton who became an international trader, was a major money-raiser for the Democratic Party and the president's legal defense fund. All that money has been returned because of concerns about its origins.

Trie had big ideas for himself in Washington, Campane said. Trie set up a corporation with the intent of opening a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the White House, Campane testified. The project never got off the ground. Clinton and Trie first got to know each other in Little Rock because the then-governor frequently ate lunch at Trie's restaurant near the state Capitol.

Trie is in China and has declined to return for the hearings or even be interviewed overseas by committee investigators. But the committee Republicans presented their story through documents and witnesses.

Campane testified that, because Trie and his business partner have declined to be interviewed, investigators have been unable to determine whether any wire transfers originated with the Chinese government and are connected to an alleged plot by the Chinese government to influence elections.

He said that Trie did have substantial business ties to China, escorting a top Chinese businessman and arms dealer into a White House reception and taking local Arkansas businessmen overseas to China. Trie's partner reportedly is a member of the People's Consultative Congress, an organization in southern China that "provides advice to the Communist Party as well as the government," the agent said.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department informed the committee that it would waive the 10-day waiting period that the law allows on the grants of immunity the committee voted last week to give five witnesses, including four Buddhist nuns involved with a temple fund-raiser last year. The grant was made over objections by department prosecutors.

That will allow the panel to call the witnesses before September, committee staff members have said.

One expected witness this week: the Clinton defense fund chief who, in a deposition obtained by The Associated Press, described to investigators his reaction when Trie dumped $460,000 in checks and money orders on a conference room table in March 1996.

"I wished there were curtains on the glass conference room," Michael Cardozo told investigators. "I was surprised, very surprised and I probably said, 'This is extraordinary. If they were all eligible this will be very helpful."'

Cardozo testified he became suspicious of the donations quickly because some of the checks, supposedly from different donors, bore similar handwriting. After a review, the fund decided to return the $640,000 Trie delivered in two visits.

Cardozo's deposition also disclosed that Trie made a third, previously undisclosed visit to the fund in May 1996 to say he was bringing in another $150,000. The offer was rejected because Cardozo already had too many suspicions about the earlier money.

Campane testified that Trie launched the fund-raising initiative for the Clintons' legal defense fund by approaching the Buddhist sect Ching Hai in Taiwan.

According to Campane, the FBI interviewed a woman who said that Trie "explained that the president was having personal legal problems" and that Trie wanted the group's assistance because it was "difficult" for Clinton to focus on the job of being president."

Campane documented how $905,000 wired from Asia in multiple transactions in 1995-96 from Wu. Donations quickly followed the transfers. For example:

It was not known whether Trie might have had legitimate business deals that could account for the transfers. But Campane testified Trie's U.S. accounts had little activity beyond the foreign transfers.

Documents show that before Ng wired $100,000 from the Bank of China to Trie's Little Rock, Ark., business account in July 1994, the account balance was $472.03.

Until $25,000 was transferred the next day from that account to Trie's personal account in the same bank, the personal account's balance was $414.64.

After the $25,000 transfer, Trie wrote a check from the personal account to the Democratic National Committee for $20,000.

One chart prepared by Senate investigators shows how donors apparently were reimbursed.

It shows that on Feb. 14, 1996, just under $150,000 was transferred by wire from San Kin Yip Holding Co. Ltd. - a Macao-based venture of Trie and Ng Lap Seng - to a Trie bank account in Washington.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.