Plea of Not Guilty
By Roberto Suro
Justice Department investigators had hoped Trie would seek a plea agreement and provide information that might take prosecutors inside the White House and the Democratic National Committee in their campaign finance inquiry. But their effort to build a broader case is stalled, department sources and defense attorneys said.
After Trie's arraignment in federal court here, his attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, said: "He never intended to corrupt the American political system. Any effort to make him the heavy in this political scandal will fall of its own weight."
Trie voluntarily returned to the United States on Tuesday to face a 15-count indictment after spending more than a year in Asia. Trie had boasted in interviews that he could hide overseas for a decade if necessary, but federal officials said Trie had been informed that the United States would seek the cooperation of foreign governments to have him apprehended and extradited.
No negotiations are underway that might lead to an immunity deal for Trie, and none are expected until his Oct. 7 trial date approaches, Justice Department officials and others close to the case said.
Meanwhile, prosecutors are also at an impasse in their efforts to reach a cooperation agreement with Maria Hsia, another Democratic fund-raiser who has been under investigation for handling illegal foreign campaign contributions, according to department officials and Hsia's attorney, Nancy Luque, who said her client will not plead guilty to any crimes.
The failure to make prosecution witnesses out of Trie, Hsia or any other significant figures in the campaign finance scandal means that the Justice Department investigation will proceed slowly at best.
Attorney General Janet Reno repeatedly has defended her refusal to seek an independent counsel to investigate suspect campaign fund-raising activities in the 1996 presidential election by insisting that the Justice Department could handle the task.
In congressional testimony last October Reno said: "Building a prosecution is in some ways like building a house. When we build a case, we focus on making sure that we go from a lower-level person to a higher-level person, if they are involved, and ultimately to the person responsible."
Now, four months later, her department's campaign finance task force has indicted one lower-level Democratic fund-raiser, Trie, and has no prospects of moving higher any time soon.
"It is always a slow process, putting together these kinds of cases," said a senior Justice Department official. "Major white-collar cases can take years and years to build."
Trie, 49, is a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan. In the 1980s he owned a restaurant in Little Rock, which was a favorite of then-Gov. Bill Clinton. In 1991 Trie opened an international trading business but had little success in launching projects either in Arkansas or Asia.
After Clinton became president, Trie moved to Washington, began raising money for the DNC -- some $645,000 in advance of the 1996 election -- and rapidly expanded his business contacts in China and Macao, the Portuguese possession across the mouth of the Pearl River from Hong Kong.
Allegations that Trie "purchased access to high-level government officials in the United State by contributing and soliciting contributions to the DNC" are at the core of the indictment, which cites more than a dozen occasions when Trie, often accompanied by business associates from Asia, attended high-level political events such as White House coffees and presidential galas.
Trie's chief source of funds -- both for his business and allegedly for funds he funneled to the DNC -- was Ng Lap Seng, a hotel and casino owner based in Macao, according to bank records. Ng does not appear to have had business interests that would benefit directly as a result of U.S. policy decisions.
"The problem with the whole Charlie Trie story is that we can't pin down exactly what he was trying to get for himself or his business friends by rubbing shoulders with Clinton or hanging around the White House," said a congressional investigator who probed Trie's alleged role in the campaign finance scandal.
The indictment does not answer this question, and Trie is not charged with any other crime that would stem from the illegal exchange of campaign contributions for favors from government officials.
Instead, Trie and an associate, Yuan Pei "Antonio" Pan, are charged in a conspiracy to defraud the DNC and obstruct the Federal Election Commission. Violations of federal election law are usually punished with civil fines even when substantial sums are at issue.
The Trie charges involve the alleged use of "straw donors" -- individuals who make campaign donations in the place of foreigners who are not eligible to contribute and who are then reimbursed with the foreigner's money.
Justice Department officials said that making a criminal case against Trie or anyone else for a campaign law violation will require showing an explicit intent to knowingly violate the law.
But Weingarten said, "This is, in fact, a political scandal that's being shoe-horned in the criminal justice system; it has no place being there."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company