In Fund Probe
By Roberto Suro and Toni Locy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 29, 1998; Page A01
The Justice Department yesterday secured its first indictment in the investigation of alleged fund-raising abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign, charging Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, an Arkansas friend of President Clinton's, with funneling illegal foreign funds into Democratic coffers.
The indictment was returned late yesterday by a federal grand jury here. Justice Department prosecutors failed in an effort to keep the indictment's existence secret, and will present a formal motion this morning to keep its contents under wraps.
Trie left the country in late 1996 after federal investigators began looking into his fund-raising activities, and he is believed to have resided primarily in China since then. By keeping the indictment secret, Justice Department officials said, they had hoped that they would have a chance to apprehend Trie if he traveled outside of China.
Although the Justice Department refused to reveal the full contents of the indictment, officials said the charges against Trie stem from allegations that he engaged in a "straw donor" scheme, collecting money from foreign businessmen not eligible to contribute to U.S. political campaigns and then distributing the money to U.S. citizens. Investigators have said the funds were then funneled to Democratic Party campaign committees and the Presidential Legal Defense Trust, a fund-raising organization created to help Clinton pay his attorneys' fees. The Clinton defense fund closed down earlier this month after failing to attract enough money to pay for its own operations.
A total of $1.2 million raised by Trie for the 1996 campaign and the Clinton legal fund has been returned because the contributions were judged suspect by the recipients. This includes several hundred thousand dollars delivered by Trie to the legal fund in sequentially numbered $1,000 money orders that purportedly came from different donors.
Although the campaign finance scandal has been overshadowed in recent days by allegations of an attempt to cover up sexual indiscretions by the president, Justice officials said a task force of some 120 prosecutors and investigators continues to look at fund-raising practices in the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign and is close to seeking other indictments involving the collection of illegal foreign funds.
Attorney General Janet Reno is also considering a recommendation that she seek an independent counsel to investigate allegations that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lied to Congress about whether Democratic fund-raisers and White House political operatives pressured his department to reject a controversial Indian casino license. After nearly a year in which the campaign finance investigation showed little progress, Reno ordered a shake-up of the task force's top leadership last September. The Trie indictment is the first major step undertaken since then. Reno on Dec. 2 declined to name an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising calls made by Clinton and Vice President Gore from the White House.
Trie grew up in Taiwan in a poor military family that had fled China in the wake of the 1949 Communist revolution. He came to the United States in the early 1970s and eventually moved to Little Rock, where he bought several Chinese eateries, including the Fu Lin Restaurant, a favorite of Clinton's when he was governor.
In 1991 Trie left the restaurant business and started his own firm, Daihatsu International Trading Co., that had business ventures both in Asia and the United States. In April 1996 Clinton appointed Trie to the White House Commission on Pacific Trade and Investment, a body of scholars, bankers and businessmen who examined U.S. trade policies.
Trie and his wife, Wang Mei, traveled often to Beijing, where they bought a house and opened a restaurant. In Washington, Trie became a well-known host for businessmen visiting from China and Taiwan who were entertained at Trie's posh three-bedroom apartment in the Watergate complex.
Clinton affectionately recalled his long acquaintance with Trie at a fund-raising dinner for Asian donors on May 13, 1995, that was captured on a White House videotape. During his welcoming remarks "to those of you here and those who have come from other countries to be with us tonight," a smiling Clinton turned to Trie and said, "it's been 20 years since I had my first meal with Charlie Trie. At the time, neither one of us could afford a ticket to this dinner."
According to congressional and federal investigators, Trie conspired with several other figures in what developed into an extensive operation to funnel money from foreign businessmen, primarily linked to Chinese corporations, into Democratic Party coffers.
Trie and his associates, including Antonio Pan, a California businessman who is also a target of the investigators, allegedly collected the money in cash and gave it to American citizens who in turn made donations to Democratic campaign accounts and the Clinton legal defense fund.
Although the Justice Department task force has been working on the Trie indictment since last fall, it has been repeatedly postponed, officials said. And when it was finally returned yesterday, Justice Department lawyers engaged in a series of missteps that left department officials puzzled and somewhat embarrassed.
When prosecutors went before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson with a routine request to seal the indictment, they found themselves being chastised by Robinson in open court for failing to pose their request in the proper form. Robinson refused to discuss the matter privately at the bench with prosecutors and, as a result, reporters learned of the indictment. Robinson gave the prosecutors until this morning to present a written request to seal the indictment and agreed to keep its contents secret at least until then.
Although they had hopes of apprehending Trie if he was unaware of the indictment, department officials insisted last night that no imminent operation to arrest him overseas had been compromised by the mishandling of the indictment.
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