Task Force Pressing For Cooperative TestimonyRoberto Suro and Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 31, 1997; Page A09
The Justice Department has intensified discussions with representatives of several key figures in the campaign finance investigation who prosecutors hope can be pressured to cooperate under threat of possible indictment on charges related to illegal campaign contributions, according to senior Justice officials and other sources.
What officials describe as newly aggressive efforts to advance the year-old investigation have focused on Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie and Johnny Chung. Trie, a longtime Arkansas friend of President Clinton's, and Chung, a major Democratic contributor and frequent White House visitor, allegedly used their connections with Asian businessmen to raise illegal foreign contributions for the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort.
FBI agents recently executed a search warrant on a unit in the Watergate complex used by Trie, meticulously going through the premises in an effort to demonstrate their seriousness of purpose, one source said. Trie reportedly has been in China since at least early last summer.
In addition, several lower-level figures who allegedly acted as conduits for foreign campaign money were informed more specifically this week that they face mid-November deadlines to decide whether they will cooperate and provide testimony against others or face charges.
The threatened indictments follow a management shake-up in the year-old Justice task force on campaign finance that has been harshly criticized by congressional Republicans for foot-dragging and ineptitude. In mid-September, Attorney General Janet Reno expanded the task force by more than a third to more than 120 attorneys, investigators and support staff and installed as its new chief prosecutor Charles G. LaBella, a veteran of the U.S. attorney's offices in New York and San Diego.
Department officials are eager to portray the task force as a tough, newly energized operation now capable of eventually bringing the campaign finance inquiry to a successful conclusion.
Officials touting the transformation enthusiastically credited LaBella for pushing the task force to operate on an expedited timetable, aiming to produce concrete results as soon as possible either clearing people under investigation or bringing charges against them.
"LaBella wants some bodies to show," said one source familiar with key aspects of the investigation, who expressed concern that the desire to show results had become overwhelming. "They want their manhood back."
As a Senate investigation into the campaign finance matter appears to be running out of steam without producing many tangible results, one senior Justice official said the task force is eager to show signs of progress including producing at least one cooperative witness to thumb its nose, in effect, at congressional critics.
Both Trie and Chung declined to speak to Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigators.
Meanwhile, sources said that several influential officials at Justice are arguing against seeking appointment of an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising calls made from the White House by Clinton and Vice President Gore. The calls are the subject of a separate but parallel inquiry technically known as a "preliminary investigation" that the task force is conducting under the Independent Counsel Act.
Reno has until Dec. 2 to determine whether the results of that investigation require her to turn the case over to an independent prosecutor. Unlike the wider allegations of illegal fund-raising from foreigners, however, the phone call investigation involves a 19th century law a prohibition against campaign solicitations on federal property that some officials argue has never been used to prosecute public officials under similar circumstances.
Justice attorneys now are negotiating with Clinton and Gore representatives to arrange voluntary interviews about the calls, which could take place by the end of November.
Regardless of Reno's decision on the relatively narrow issue of the phone calls, Justice Department officials insist that the recent changes in the campaign finance investigation are certain to have a long and resounding political impact.
Officials said the task force has undertaken investigative projects that will stretch well into next year and are likely to bring an ever wider circle of individuals under prosecutorial scrutiny. Tangible results, such as plea bargains or indictments of significant figures, could temporarily mute demands that Reno seek an independent counsel to take over the entire investigation.
Before the September shake-up, "the areas that needed investigating had been pretty much identified but nobody was pursuing them," an official said. "Now you have people assigned to each of these areas and they are pushing to get answers."
The mere deployment of such a large investigative force provides its own momentum, officials said. "When you have that many people looking at that many subjects, a pressure develops to continue, to keep looking, to press ahead," said a veteran federal prosecutor familiar with the inquiry.
Officials insisted that the newly aggressive approach has resolved often-paralyzing disagreements over the pace of the probe that had pitted the FBI against the previous leaders of the task force in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section. The public integrity lawyers had insisted on a cautious strategy of focusing first on the lowest-level figures in the scandal and then carefully working up to major fund-raisers and then to party and possibly elected officials.
"The basic strategy is still bottom-up, but now we have several forays underway aimed at significant players higher up the food chain," said a Justice Department attorney. That is essentially the approach the FBI first advocated shortly after the 1996 election.
In addition to LaBella, Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the former U.S. attorney for the District, is directly supervising the task force and advising Reno on campaign finance issues. As part of the September shake-up, Reno also gave FBI Director Louis J. Freeh what amounted to both a top-level vote, as well as a veto, over task force operations.
"This has become much more like an investigation you would see in a U.S. attorney's office, where people are used to weighing risks when deciding how to make cases, and it has become less like a classic Public Integrity Section investigation where caution and precedent prevail," said a senior official.
Trie, a former restaurateur and small businessman based in Arkansas, has been under Justice investigation in connection with an alleged plan to funnel illegal foreign funds into U.S. campaigns. A combined total of $1.2 million that Trie raised during the 1996 campaign for the Democrats and for Clinton's legal defense fund has since been returned.
Chung, a Taiwanese U.S. citizen connected with a number of somewhat murky California-based business endeavors, visited the White House 51 times in the two years preceding the 1996 election, and raised at least $366,000 for the Democrats from what later were determined to be questionable sources.
Staff researcher Nathan Abse, special correspondent Anne Farris and researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post