How the disgraced James Riady, barred from travel to the U.S., made it back

By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

JAKARTA, INDONESIA -- In March 2004, James Riady, an Indonesian tycoon and devout Christian, received an honorary doctorate from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas. The university -- which has a scholarship program funded by the Indonesian -- didn't announce the honor. Nor did Riady pick up the diploma in person: He'd been barred from America after pleading guilty in 2001 to a "conspiracy to defraud the United States" through illegal contributions to the campaigns of Bill Clinton and other Democrats.

Last year, however, the Indonesian mogul finally made it to Arkansas. He traveled there during the first of two previously unreported trips he made in 2009 to the United States. He was allowed in only after receiving a waiver from a rule that forbids entry to foreigners guilty of "a crime involving moral turpitude," a term that government lawyers generally interpret to include fraud.

Riady's return to the United States poses a prickly question for Hillary Clinton's State Department: How and why did a foreign billionaire stained by Clinton-era scandals get a U.S. visa after being kept out for so long under the Bush administration?

The ethnic Chinese magnate's ties to the Clintons have been a source of heated controversy since the late 1990s, when Riady became embroiled in one of the murkiest episodes of the Clinton presidency -- a campaign fundraising scandal that caused a big political ruckus in Washington amid Republican Party allegations, never proved, of meddling by China's intelligence services in American politics.

The saga brought Riady and his family-run conglomerate, Lippo Group, an $8.6 million fine, the biggest penalty in the history of U.S. campaign finance violations.

A close look at Riady's quiet American comeback, along with dramas back home in Indonesia that preceded it, reveals how one of Asia's best-known and most complicated businessmen has deployed a potent mix of faith, chutzpah and charity in a long quest for rehabilitation. It also reveals a man beset by contradictions -- a dedicated student of the Bible who has a reputation in Indonesia for showing scant forgiveness to those who cross him; a generous philanthropist whose Lippo Group is notorious in Jakarta business circles for its raw pursuit of profit; a proud man who was humiliated by his entanglement with the Clintons but who has now sought to reenter their world.

Riady, 52, declined to be interviewed but, in an e-mailed response to written questions, he said the teachings of Christ "inform all that I do." He said he hadn't seen the Clintons during his 2009 trips to America but did pay $20,000 to become a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual gathering of prominent figures in politics, business and philanthropy sponsored by Bill Clinton.

A senior State Department official said Hillary Clinton had no knowledge of the decision to let Riady enter the United States. The tycoon's visa, he said, was issued by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta after the Indonesian asked to travel to America so that he could attend family graduation ceremonies. Riady, added the official, was granted entry for a "very narrow purpose."

On his first visit in May, Riady watched his son, John, graduate from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and his daughter, Stephanie, graduate from Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois. He also traveled to Arkansas to see Ouachita Baptist University's president, Rex Horne, the former pastor of the Clintons' Little Rock church. Riady, who has an educational foundation in Indonesia, said he visited about 15 American universities and schools and said he had made clear in his application to enter the United States that this was the main purpose of his travels. "I have a well documented passion for education," Riady said in his e-mail.

On his second visit, however, he reached out beyond American campuses. In September he went to a business forum in Boston of Indonesian and American executives. He also registered for a meeting in New York of the Clinton Global Initiative, along with a galaxy of big-name guests such as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Riady, in his e-mail, said he wanted to attend because "educational issues were on the agenda" but, in the end, didn't "because I was unable to fit it into my schedule."

Riady's wide range of activities in America didn't violate the terms of his visa, American officials say, but they nonetheless caused consternation in the upper reaches of the State Department. The tycoon, one State Department official said, is free to apply to visit again but "the reality of his past remains a significant obstacle for future travel to the United States."

The Clinton connection

Riady, who trained as an investment banker in New York, met Bill Clinton in 1978 when the Indonesian spent four months in Little Rock, where Lippo bought a local bank, according to court documents. Returning to the United States in 1984, Riady stayed in Arkansas for two years before moving to California, and had frequent contacts with then-governor Clinton.

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