07/30/97 - 01:57 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version
WASHINGTON - The director of President Clinton's legal defense fund testified Wednesday that he ordered investigators looking into suspicious donations not to question the man who delivered $460,000 in a plain, brown envelope.
Michael Cardozo told Senate hearings on campaign fund-raising abuses that the investigative firm hired by the trust was instructed not to interview Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie because he claimed to be a close friend of the president.
"Mr. Trie represented himself as a friend of the president, I didn't want to launch a full-scale background investigation on him," Cardozo said.
"Charlie Trie was not relevant to our considerations" in determining whether to accept the contributions from members of a Buddhist sect that had been gathered by Trie, Cardozo said.
"We never accepted the funds, therefore it was not necessary to interview Mr. Trie," Cardozo told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
After the Presidential Legal Expense Trust returned all the money, trustees decided not to publicly disclose the rejected contributions because "we wanted to avoid sensational press coverage," Cardozo said.
The fund was set up to raise contributions to help Clinton and his wife, Hillary, pay legal bills arising from the Whitewater investigation and the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
When Cardozo reported Trie's donation to White House officials in May, deputy chief of staff Evelyn Lieberman sketched out headlines newspapers would run if word got out that the donations had been accepted, he said.
Cardozo testified that when Trie delivered the money in March, 1996, he immediately culled out $70,000 of suspicious checks, which purported to have been written by different people but bore similar handwriting. The rest - about $390,000 - was placed in the trust's lock box at a bank by Trie, Cardozo said.
A few weeks later, Trie returned to Cardozo's office with a sack, saying he wanted to contribute another $170,000, Cardozo said.
"It was a large shopping bag,, it was heavily laden. I said to myself 'Oh my God, he's got a million dollars this time,"' Cardozo said. Cardozo said he refused to accept the additional money, saying the trust had not determined whether initial $380,000 contributions would be accepted.
Counsel Mark Tipps repeatedly questioned Cardozo about why he did not try to find out more information about Trie, who has since become a focus of the Senate's investigation into campaign fund-raising abuses.
"The objective of trustees or the trust was to determine whether these were eligible contributions," Cardozo said.
"We were not focused on Mr. Trie, he was not the subject of any congressional investigation, he was an unknown entity," Cardozo said. "He was an unknown entity to us."'
But Cardozo conceded that Trie had told him he was helping organize a Democratic Party fund-raiser in San Francisco that would raise $1 million for Clinton's re-election campaign.
Cardozo told Tipps he did not mention Trie's possible political ties when he met with Hillary Rodham Clinton and deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes to report the episode a few weeks later.
The first lady "scarcely recognized" Trie as the operator of a Little Rock restaurant where then-Gov. Clinton ate lunch, Cardozo said.
"She required some prompting before she even recognized his name," Cardozo said.
The panel heard testimony Tuesday from an investigator who said Trie moved to Washington to capitalize on his friendship with Clinton.
Trie and his wife donated $220,000 to the Democratic National Committee out of $905,000 wired to him by a wealthy Asian businessman between 1994 and 1996, said investigator Jerry Campane, an FBI agent detailed to the Senate probe.
The panel was also scheduled to hear from Terry F. Lenzner, chairman of the private company hired to investigate the Ching Hai sect, whose members made the donations.
Lenzner told Senate investigators that he was directed by trust officials not to interview Trie, said committee aides, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Cardozo also disclosed in his testimony that Trie attempted to deliver an additional $150,00 on a third visit but was rebuffed.
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