07/31/97 - 02:32 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Blank money orders said to be used at fund-raiser

WASHINGTON - Working with fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, a Buddhist sect raised money for President Clinton's legal defense fund at an event where one member brought some $70,000 in blank money orders, Senate investigators have learned.

With partisan anger flaring again, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was continuing to hear witnesses Thursday on the defense fund. The panel was nearing an August break following a month of hearings on the influence of foreign money in U.S. campaigns.

During the religious sect's event at a posh New York hotel, lawful U.S. residents - who were eligible to contribute - were separated from non-U.S. residents, who were not permitted to make donations, committee investigators were told.

The pitch from the sect's leader was so forceful that several members tried to leave the room, but were persuaded to return, the Senate aides said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

The gathering raised most of the $460,000, including the money orders, that Trie dumped on a conference table in the defense fund headquarters on March 21, 1996.

A private investigator hired by the Presidential Legal Expense Trust told senators today that his firm was instructed not to interview Trie, and never did.

"I am certain we were told not to contact Charlie Trie, we were to start with finding out who he was, what his background was, starting with the public database," said Terry F. Lenzner, president of The Investigative Group Inc.

"Your view as a seasoned investigator was Mr. Trie could have shed some light on these contributions," said Senate counsel Michael J. Madigan.

"Certainly he had the potential to do so," Lenzner said.

A report by Lenzner's firm noted that the Buddhist Ching Haig sect had the "greatest following and influence" in Taiwan, where lawmakers were "supporters and followers." A retired general was its leading publicist in Taiwan, the report said.

More investigation would be needed to find Ching Hai's ties to the Taiwan government, said the report.

Republicans introduced the report to suggest the defense fund overlooked suspicions about a possible foreign source of the money when it told sect members they could contribute if eligible. Madigan noted the trust made the suggestion in letters to individual sect followers when it returned the donations.

The hearings took bizarre turn when Republicans questioned Lenzner about a proposal he had received from an Oklahoma Indian tribe to investigate a member of the panel, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., who had opposed return of federal lands to the tribe.

Even though he didn't conduct the probe, Lenzner was questioned sharply by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pa., about his discussions with members of the tribe, who wanted to determine whether Nickles received any gratuities from the state's oil and gas industries in exchange for his opposition to returning the land.

Specter noted that the information on Nickles was sought "to put it mildly, to pressure him, to persuade him to change his position" on returning the land.

"I don't mind you messing with me, but I do mind you messing with my family," Nickles said after hearing details of the proposal to investigate his family's business dealings.

Lenzner said he never carried out the probe but it would have been "analagous to what we do" to help companies research background of corporate raiders that could be used in a takeover battle to "so companies can educate shareholders" before a stock proxy fight.

The Indians had told him they made a $107,000 contribution to the Democratic Party on the promise the Clinton administration would work to return the land, located near Fort Reno, Okla., Lenzner said. The DNC returned the money in March, saying it wanted to avoid the appearance the donation was accepted in return for favorable treatment by the Clinton administration.

During Wednesday's hearing, Sen. Fred Thompson, the committee chairman, lashed out at the White House, furious that documents sought earlier about Trie's Asian business partner were only released Tuesday night.

"We are not going to tolerate" the White House "trying to manipulate the press and us about waiting until testimony had happened before relevant documents would be produced," Thompson said.

White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff denied any foot-dragging.

"The timing of our production had absolutely nothing to do with politics or tactics," Ruff said in a statement.

The records the White House released showed that Macao businessman Ng Lap Seng, who wired at least $905,000 in Asian money to Trie's U.S. bank accounts, visited the White House 10 times. Several visits by Trie's partner coincided with donations to the Democratic Party that Trie made after receiving the wire transfers.

An FBI agent assigned to the committee has testified that Trie laundered the Asian money through his U.S. accounts and used $220,000 for donations to the Democratic National Committee.

Trie's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, said in a statement that his client "never made contributions that he believed violated the law."

The documents on Ng, released Wednesday, showed that one White House visit on Feb. 16, 1995, was for a DNC dinner with Clinton.

Another time, Ng toured the White House along with a Chinese arms dealer. He also visited five times with a top deputy to Thomas "Mack" McLarty, former White House chief of staff and currently a presidential adviser. White House spokesman Lanny J. Davis said those visits were "purely social" and Ng was accompanied by Trie, a longstanding friend of Middleton.

In addition to his Democratic Party contributions, Trie raised $640,000 for the defense fund that is helping Clinton pay his legal bills. As was the case with the party donations, money raised for the defense fund by Trie was returned to donors.

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