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Donor Contradicts White HouseBy William C. Rempel and Alan C. Miller
The Los Angeles Times
Sunday, July 27, 1997
Contradicting accounts by the Clinton administration, one of the Democratic Party's biggest campaign donors says he gave a $50,000 check to the first lady's chief of staff on White House grounds in 1995 in direct response to solicitations by aides of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Southern California entrepreneur Johnny Chung said he was seeking VIP treatment for a delegation of visiting Chinese businessmen when he was asked to help the first lady defray the cost of White House Christmas receptions billed to the Democratic National Committee.
Chung, who has refused to cooperate with investigators unless granted immunity from prosecution, said in interviews that he realized such special treatment hinged on his willingness to make a political contribution.
"I see the White House is like a subway—you have to put in coins to open the gates," Chung said in his first public comments on the controversial episode.
On Friday, White House communications director Ann Lewis disputed Chung's account. She said of the first lady's aides: "At no time did they solicit a contribution from Mr. Chung."
Lewis also denied that the $50,000 check had anything to do with the White House perquisites extended to the Torrance, Calif., businessman and the Chinese delegation. She said the first lady's aides may have gotten Chung and his guests into lunch at the White House Mess and arranged a photo with Hillary Clinton, but that any such efforts on his behalf were "a courtesy we could do and have done for friends."
Margaret A. Williams, the first lady's former chief of staff, who has acknowledged accepting Chung's check, is the subject of a pending inquiry by the federal agency charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from soliciting contributions, as well as by congressional panels probing campaign finance abuses.
Chung's detailed version of White House events, combined with other newly available information, challenges the administration's insistence that Williams played "a completely passive" role in relaying an unsolicited $50,000 check to the DNC.
Williams, who recently left the White House, and Evan Ryan, an aide in the first lady's office who met with Chung and the Chinese delegation, declined to be interviewed.
In recent interviews, Chung, 43, also denied Republican allegations that he may have funneled Chinese government money to the DNC.
Chung, a Taiwan-born fax company owner-turned-international businessman, contributed $366,000 between mid-1994 and November's election. The DNC recently returned all of Chung's donations because it said an internal audit could not confirm that the money actually came from the businessman.
Chung and his attorneys long have insisted that the donations were funded from Chung's financial reserves and that he represented no foreign interests.
By March 1995, Chung's growing involvement in politics was earning him a reputation in Asian business circles. He squired a Chinese beer maker to a Clinton Christmas party in 1994. Then, Chung said, Zheng Hongye, chairman of the China Chamber of International Commerce, asked him to open the same doors for a delegation of major executives he was leading on a U.S. visit.
"I am trying to build new business in China so I am happy to do my best to help," said Chung, who touted the delegation as "very important and very powerful leaders" in a letter to the White House.
When he escorted the five-member delegation to Washington, his first stop was DNC headquarters. Chung had come with an ambitious wish list: a White House tour; a meeting with Hillary Clinton; lunch in the White House Mess; and admission to the taping of President Clinton's Saturday morning radio address.
After DNC finance chairman Richard Sullivan said the party could do little for him, Chung said he offered to make another contribution without specifying an amount.
Sullivan testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee this month that Chung had offered to donate $50,000 if he could get his Chinese associates into the presidential radio address. He said he turned Chung down because this was inappropriate and, moreover, "I had a sense that he might be taking money from them . . . and then giving it to us."
Federal election law prohibits the acceptance of foreign contributions.
DNC officials agreed only to arrange a standard White House tour. Dissatisfied, Chung headed for the White House alone.
He was admitted, and found his way to Room 100 of the Old Executive Office Building—the first lady's office. There, Chung said, he was greeted by Evan Ryan, and he showed her the business cards of his Chinese companions. Chung said he asked if arrangements could be made for them to eat lunch in the White House Mess and meet Hillary Clinton. Chung also asked if there was anything he could do to help the White House.
Ryan left for about 15 to 20 minutes and returned, saying she had spoken with Williams. Then, she said: "Maybe you can help us."
The aide told Chung that "the first lady had some debts with the DNC" from expenses associated with White House Christmas parties. Chung said he believes Ryan mentioned a figure of around $80,000.
Ryan told him, Chung said, that she was relaying the request on behalf of Williams, who hoped Chung could "help the first lady" defray those costs.
"Then a light bulb goes on in my mind. I start to understand," Chung said. "I said I will help for $50,000."
The next morning, Chung said, he went back to the White House and gave Ryan an unsealed envelope.
A short time later, Chung said, the chief of staff joined them and Ryan handed the envelope to her. Williams, he said, immediately led him into her private office and called to reserve a table for the Chinese delegation at the White House Mess.
Williams has told congressional investigators that she never looked at the check. "I know she knew what was inside, because to me it was her idea that I help," Chung said.
Later, waiting for Hillary Clinton in a White House reception room, Chung said he asked if the first lady had been informed of his donation and Ryan responded, "Yes, she definitely knows."
White House officials confirm that Chung came to the first lady's office on March 8 and 9, 1995. They have acknowledged that Williams was given a check for $50,000 from Chung in the White House and that Chung was seeking admission to the president's radio address.
But they agree with little else from Chung's version of events. They maintain that Williams and Ryan did not solicit the donation and did not provide any benefits as a result of it.
The White House maintains that Williams "absolutely did not" violate the Hatch Act by taking Chung's check because regulations allow a government official to accept a political contribution as long as it is forwarded immediately to a political party.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company