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February 4, 1998

Key Figure in Campaign Fund-Raising Inquiry Surrenders to Federal Authorities


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    By DAVID JOHNSTON

    WASHINGTON -- Yah Lin Trie, a Democratic fund-raiser and long-time Arkansas friend of President Clinton, surrendered on Tuesday to federal authorities at Dulles International Airport in suburban Virginia, months after he fled the country as the campaign-finance scandals erupted.

    Trie, known to his associates as Charlie, agreed to voluntarily turn himself in after intense weeklong discussions between his lawyers and prosecutors from the Justice Department's campaign-finance team. He has been living in Macao, but traveled to the United States Tuesday on a flight from Paris, officials with the FBI said.

    His arrest represents a significant advancement in the Justice Department's inquiry. Not only is he the first defendant to be charged, but, investigators say, his first-hand knowledge of questionable fund-raising practices could be valuable if he decides to cooperate in the case.

    Trie's apprehension came a week after a federal grand jury returned a 15-count felony indictment accusing Trie and an associate, Antonio Pan, of obstructing justice and arranging illegal contributions to the Democratic National Committee to buy influence with Clinton and other senior administration officials. Pan's whereabouts remain unknown, although he was believed to be living overseas.

    Federal law enforcement officials said that Trie, who fled to China when fund-raising irregularities ballooned into a furor, gave himself up without reaching a plea bargain agreement with the government or obtaining any assurance that his surrender would lead to reduced charges or lenient sentencing.

    Officials said they hope to begin negotiations to obtain Trie's cooperation soon. The Justice Department is expected to continue unfurling indictments in the next several weeks.

    Reid Weingarten, a lawyer for Trie, said on Tuesday night in a statement that Trie's voluntary return "should put to rest" any questions about whether Trie was trying to flee justice or was working for a foreign government. Weingarten said that he expected Trie would be "fully vindicated."

    A few hints of what Trie might know emerged in last week's indictment. The charges said that Trie and Pan contributed large sums of money to the Democratic National Committee under the names of straw donors, or people who secretly were reimbursed in cash after they made contributions.

    The indictment said that in an effort to advance their business interests in the United States and overseas, Trie and Pan "purchased access to high-level government officials in the United States by contributing and soliciting contributions to the Democratic National Committee." But whether they actually obtained any financial benefit for their commercial ventures remains unclear.

    Between June 22, 1994, and Aug. 18, 1996, Trie attended 10 dinners, lunches or coffees with Clinton, including four at the White House. Trie attended four events with Vice President Al Gore, one of which was in the White House. Moreover, he arranged three White House tours with his business associates and a photo opportunity with Clinton.

    Justice Department officials, who have been under intense pressure to produce results after more than a year of investigation, were delighted with Tuesday's developments. Republicans in Congress, who have hammered the Justice Department over its slow pace, praised Trie's surrender.

    "I applaud the Justice Department for getting him back to this country and am hopeful it will lead to explanations of other foreign contributions and who was involved," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. As chairman of the House committee investigating campaign-finance issues, Burton said he would like to call Trie to testify if the Justice Department would permit it.

    Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee led a lengthy inquiry into campaign-finance issues and was a fierce Justice Department critic, said, "Better late than never."

    Trie's surrender capped several weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvers as prosecutors delayed the long-prepared indictment while investigators planned to capture Trie in Macao. But the Justice Department backed away from the arrest plan for reasons that remain unclear.

    Last week, the authorities moved forward with the indictment, hoping to keep it under wraps in the hope they might still lure Trie to a location where he could be arrested. But a federal magistrate inadvertently disclosed the indictment last Wednesday when she refused to close a hearing in which prosecutors sought to keep the charges under seal.

    The following day, prosecutors disclosed the indictment as they opened discussions with Weingarten, Trie's lawyer, in an effort to persuade Trie to return. After a weekend of negotiations, Trie, who was born in Taiwan but is a naturalized citizen, agreed to surrender.

    Law enforcement officials said that they argued to Trie's lawyers that if he remained a fugitive, his name would be placed on watch lists around the world and that friendly police officials throughout Asia would be waiting to arrest him.

    Moreover, the officials indicated that his voluntary surrender would be influential in any plea negotiations with the government. Even if he served a prison term, the lawyers said, the 49-year old restaurateur could look forward to release in a few years, in time to resume a career.

    After his arrest, Trie was immediately taken to appear before Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan in Alexandria, Va. He was released on a $200,000 bond and agreed to relinquish his passport and the deeds to two properties in Little Rock. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday morning before U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington.

    Trie represented a new era of Democratic fund-raisers and helped rachet up the profile of Asian-Americans in the Democratic Party. He and others raised millions of dollars for the party during its frenzied rush for money during Clinton's re-election campaign.

    But unlike some others, Trie had a direct and personal tie to Clinton, who has fondly recalled how as governor of Arkansas he would drop by Trie's Little Rock restaurant to dine and gossip with mutual friends of the proprietor.

    Trie had one official, and unpaid, job in the Clinton administration as a member of a presidential commission examining and making recommendations about Asian trade policy. His name was a last-minute addition to the list of commission members.




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