08/05/97 - 01:41 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Clinton: Trie's donations should have been 'scrutinized'

WASHINGTON - President Clinton never was suspicious about lavish campaign contributions from Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, a former restaurateur portrayed by one Democratic senator as a "hustler" who gave millions in illegal donations to Democrats.

In a White House interview Monday, Clinton said the questionable campaign contributions accepted by the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 campaign were a matter of busy people "not minding the store," and Democrats have "paid a dear price" for that inattention.

He added: "I tell you what. I bet it'll never happen again."

Clinton said he had known Little Rock restaurant owner Trie for 20 years in Arkansas and, "I had no reason to believe that he didn't know what the law was and wouldn't follow it.

"I just assumed all these checks that were going to the DNC were being scrutinized in the same way that the checks were being scrutinized at our campaign," Clinton said.

"The same way that they had been scrutinized at the DNC until someone, allegedly for economy measures, shut them down."

Four weeks of hearings by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee into campaign finance abuses ended Thursday. A second round begins when Congress returns from its August recess after Labor Day. So far, the White House and Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign have borne the brunt of the investigation.

Trie has been a missing person during the hearings, but his absence has not prevented senators from both parties to aim scorn, suspicion and ridicule at him.

It was a Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who first referred to Trie as a "hustler." That followed testimony Trie sometimes showed up at the DNC or at the president's legal defense fund with hundreds of thousands of dollars in paper, plastic, or inflatable bags.

The directors of Clinton's legal defense fund rejected $789,000 collected by Trie last year.

Although the committee yearns to hear from Trie, his exact whereabouts are unknown. He is believed hiding out in China.

Clinton said he also assumed the DNC had examined donations delivered by Johnny Chung, a California businessman who also dropped millions into DNC coffers in 1996.

As with Trie, the Senate Committee wants to know where Chung got the money, noting the suspicious timing of cash transfers from China just days or hours before the donations were received by the DNC. Too, some witnesses already have testified they lent their names to contributions that did not come from their pockets but, rather, from Chung.

Sen. Fred Thompson, chairman of the committee, excoriated the White House Friday for dribbling documents and testimony slowly - the Tennessee senator said it amounts to stonewalling.

"If you have a situation where people are raising questions as to whether or not the for-sale sign is out, the president ought to be taking the lead in that," Thompson told reporters. "I don't see that."

Clinton's jaw tensed momentarily when asked about Thompson's comment.

"I have encouraged everybody to cooperate and I will continue to do that," Clinton said. "And I have taken a lot of responsibility.

"It is obvious we didn't have a policy to try to take tainted money. Until I see some evidence to the contrary, I'm going to believe that this happened because the DNC simply was not minding the store. And they have paid a dear price, we all have, for not minding the store."

As for the large and steady streams of cash that flowed into Democratic coffers courtesy of Trie, Chung and former Commerce Department official John Huang, Clinton suggested the men simply were overzealous.

"One of the things that you have to do in a world where you're trying to promote campaign finance laws is you must protect your contributors from their own enthusiasms," Clinton said.

"Even if they're not deliberately trying to undermine it, you have to be able to be checking these things all the time."

Clinton said he thinks the Senate hearings are important, but repeated his frequent complaint that deep reforms are needed.

"What is legal is not good," he said. "Campaigns cost too much money."

By Deborah Mathis, Gannett News Service

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