A Fund-Raiser's Rise and FallBy Brian Duffy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 1997; Page A01
On the standard federal employment form, applicants are asked a "reason for wanting to leave" their current employer. When John Huang answered the question in early 1993, he wrote that he wished to resign his $205,000-a-year banking job "to have the opportunity to serve the country through this administration."
Today, no one can say with certainty who Huang, the man at the center of the Democratic Party's fund-raising scandal, really served during his 2 1/2 years in Washington. While a mid-level Commerce Department official, Huang enjoyed extraordinary access to President Clinton. In 1995, after Clinton made inquiries on his behalf, Huang moved to a fund-raising job at the Democratic National Committee.
While at Commerce, he attended dozens of briefings involving classified information, even as he maintained ties to the Lippo Group, the global business conglomerate that had hired him in the 1980s and eventually made him head of its U.S. operations. The timing of his calls to Lippo -- sometimes soon after top secret briefings or the receipt of classified documents -- has prompted a congressional inquiry into whether Huang was giving government secrets to his former employer.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is exploring whether Huang may have served as an "agent of influence" of the People's Republic of China, perhaps funneling money from Beijing into American political campaigns. Huang raised nearly $3 million for the DNC in 1996; about half of it has been deemed questionable or improper and returned.
In recent weeks, the FBI has concluded that while Huang is a subject of the probe, he ultimately may be more valuable as a government witness. One FBI analysis recommends trying to win Huang's cooperation in building a potential case against White House and DNC officials who knew about the fund-raising practices, according to persons familiar with the analysis.
Through his attorneys, Huang has said he did nothing improper. Huang, who left the DNC late last year, has refused to comment while a Washington grand jury hears evidence.
Thousands of pages of his own records, other government documents and dozens of interviews provide a still incomplete and sometimes contradictory portrait of Huang. Some describe him as a trusted bridge-builder whose self-effacing manner allowed him to move easily among millionaires, senators and White House officials. In a statement that found its way into his government personnel file, Huang described a desire "to serve . . . to be humble. We should be like the willow tree. . . . The higher it grows, the lower it bends."
But that picture is at odds with what is known of Huang the political operator, a man who cultivated relationships over the years with the likes of Clinton, Vice President Gore, White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles and key senators that brought him into the heart of the Democratic Party. It was at the DNC that Huang's three worlds -- business, Asia and Democratic politics -- came together.
During his brief time in government, Huang clearly did not see himself as just another bureaucrat. Not long before he took the job, he visited James Kleindienst, a former banking colleague.
"He said, `I'm here; I'm going to work for the administration,' " Kleindienst recalled. "I said, `How'd that happen?' "
Huang grinned. "F.O.B.," the banker recalled him saying.
From Factory to Finance
Jian-Nan Huang was born April 14, 1945, in Fujian, China. A child of war -- there were more than a million Japanese troops in China at the time -- Huang and his family fled across the Taiwan Strait to Taipei four years later as Chinese Nationalists fell to the Communists. For the Huangs, escape literally meant survival: Huang's father was a major general in the Chinese Nationalist army.
Little is known publicly about Huang's early years. Former colleagues said Huang rarely discussed his past or his family. "I never had a personal conversation with him," said a former DNC colleague.
At Taiwan's Tatung Institute, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1967, classmates knew him as a gifted basketball player and graceful dancer whom one friend dubbed "twinkletoes."
Huang came to the United States in 1969 to study for a master's in business administration at the University of Connecticut. An ambitious, if cash-starved, grad student, he juggled his course work in statistics with a job working a factory lathe.
In 1972, after earning his MBA, he married Jane Soohoo, a Chinese American, and moved to the Washington area. Huang was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1976.
Huang's ascendance from factory floor to the corridors of international finance began that same year. As a 31-year-old branch banker at Washington's American Security Bank, he persuaded Chairman Carleton Stewart to put him on what he considered a prestigious international account. He was assigned to handle its growing relationship with China.
Huang spent much of the next three years managing transfers and running travelers checks to the Chinese diplomatic liaison office, the precursor to the Chinese Embassy. He also took Chinese delegations to view U.S. business at locations such as Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant.
In 1979, Charles Williams hired Huang at First National Bank in Louisville. Williams remembers that Huang's experience handling the Chinese account, his contacts in China and his language proficiency helped him overlook Huang's lack of banking experience abroad.
Two years later, in 1981, Huang befriended First National's chairman, John W. Barr III. Huang accompanied him on a prospecting trip to China and was the interpreter in meetings with the Bank of China's chairman as they tried to build on the trade-financing deals Huang had set up with the Chinese.
That project ultimately failed, and Huang jumped to Union Planters Bank, a Tennessee institution that had a relationship with the Bank of China. After a year in Memphis, Huang was named a vice president, sent to Hong Kong and placed in charge of financing U.S. agricultural exports.
Huang traveled widely -- to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and China. "We would ask him to gather information on people, to bring in business for the bank," said Ed Gutierrez, Huang's supervisor at Union Planters.
One part of Huang's job there was managing a line of credit to Bank Central Asia -- controlled by Indonesians Mochtar Riady and his son James. He had first met Riady at a financial seminar in Little Rock in 1980 that featured featured Bill Clinton, then in his first term as governor, as a speaker.
Based in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, the Riadys headed the Lippo Group financial conglomerate. From its start in banking, Lippo had grown rapidly into life insurance and property development and expanded into Hong Kong, across Asia and, as the 1980s began, into China, where the government began to encourage foreign investment.
Among the Riadys' many enterprises was a partnership, called Stephens Finance Ltd., with the Arkansas-based Stephens investment banking firm. In handling the Bank Central Asia account for Union Planters in Hong Kong, Huang worked closely with Stephens Finance. Thus, after Unions Planters eliminated its Hong Kong office (and Huang's job there) the young Chinese American banker seemed a natural hire for a new Riady-Stephens acquisition -- the Worthen Banking Group in Little Rock. James Riady had just taken over as Worthen president.
As he commuted between Little Rock and Worthen's Hong Kong Chinese Bank Ltd., Huang worked and socialized with a number of friends and associates of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. In October 1985, he escorted the Clintons and an Arkansas group at a seminal Asia trade mission. The group was treated to a Hong Kong harbor cruise in a Stephens company boat and a reception hosted by Huang at the Overseas Bankers Club.
Among the Clinton associates Huang met through Worthen were Mark E. Middleton, who later worked at the Clinton White House, and Mark Grobmyer, an international deal broker. C. Joseph Giroir Jr., then a law partner of Hillary Clinton, later would represent Lippo's interests in the United States and raise money for the DNC.
After Huang's first year at Worthen, the bank ran into financial trouble, and the Riadys moved Huang to Los Angeles to run the Bank of Trade, later renamed Lippo Bank, U.S.A. The Huangs, with two school-age sons, settled in Glendale, Calif.
Just after the move, Huang became active in Democratic politics, largely at James Riady's urging, friends and former associates say. Riady was pressing senators for help in urging Taiwan to permit Asian American banks, or at least the Riady-owned Bank of Trade, to open an office in Taipei. In April 1988, Riady hosted a fund-raising dinner for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that brought in $110,000. Four days after the dinner, he sent a memo outlining his plan to enlist senators' help on the Taiwan issue.
By the fall of 1988, Huang also was busily raising money for the DSCC. Then in New York managing Bank Central Asia (partly owned by Mochtar Riady), Huang gave a fund-raiser for Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), then the head of the DSCC.
Huang got to know Democratic Sens. Al Gore (Tenn.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) by escorting them on separate Asia trade missions. Conrad's visit with a North Dakota business group generated $100 million in new investments for the state, including a program to train Taiwanese pilots there.
"I never felt he lobbied me on anything or pushed his views," Conrad said in an interview. "But no one could have been more surprised than me to find out John Huang was raising big money."
In the spring of 1989, Huang appeared at a Kentucky Derby Day party for Harvey Sloane, Democratic opponent of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Huang and his wife gave $1,000 but also contributed $2,000 to McConnell, one of two Republicans to whom the Huangs have donated, federal records show. (The other was New York Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato.)
The Riadys had sent Huang back to Los Angeles in 1990 to direct Lippo Group U.S.A, and he once again became active in Asian American causes. In July of that year, Huang and a delegation traveled to Washington to lobby against immigration restrictions on the families of foreign-born Americans. Those familiar with the events say Huang was persuasive in meetings with members of Congress. Some, such as San Francisco activist Yvonne Lee, felt the issue was a "lost cause. . . . But John said, `If our community is not united, then how can the larger community respect us?' "
Huang's influence among ethnic groups made him a potent fund-raiser. He hosted a Clinton fund-raiser in San Gabriel, Calif., in 1992 and after the election, Huang pledged to raise $100,000 to identify and elect Asian American candidates to national offices.
In a speech to a Chinese American group in San Francisco a few years ago, Huang offered an explanation for his involvement in politics. "My wife's grandfather came here to build up railroads, earning 25 cents a day," Huang said, according to Asia Week magazine. "In the early days, you had to take care of your well-being first. But once you achieve a certain success, you really have to think about what else you can do. We cannot simply think that when we have crossed the river, coming to the promised land, that we have done enough."
Aboard the Administration
Within weeks of Clinton's 1992 victory, Huang began lobbying for an administration job. He sent his resume and that of another Lippo Group executive, Charles De Queljoe, to Gerald Stern, who was handling transition personnel. Written on Lippo Group stationery, the note said he and De Queljoe would be "interested" in jobs at the State Department, the Commerce Department or the National Security Council.
Huang's application sat in a file with those of 75 other Asian Americans seeking jobs. What set Huang's apart were endorsements from senators he had cultivated. Democrats Paul Simon (Ill.) and Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) wrote letters. So did Kent Conrad, referring to Huang as "my very good friend" and writing at the bottom: "John Huang is superb."
On Dec. 30, 1993, Clinton named Huang deputy assistant secretary for international economic affairs at Commerce, responsible for Asian trade matters. Huang took a 50 percent pay cut from his Lippo salary, but the blow was softened by a severance package worth more than $750,000. Huang was given a top-secret security clearance within a month, even though it was not until July 1994 that he could extricate himself from Lippo and move to Commerce. His former Commerce colleagues remain divided about Huang's role there. Several said his superiors, particularly the late Charles F. Meissner, a powerful figure at the department, were not keen to have him.
But Melinda Yee, a former DNC fund-raiser who worked at Commerce with Huang, told Asia Week in November 1994 that Huang was a player in briefings held with Asian American business leaders. "John . . . knows a lot about the Far East," Yee told the magazine. "He's always giving us advice."
Other evidence supports Yee's description. In approving Huang's security clearance, Commerce's security chief, Paul A. Buskirk, wrote that it was necessary "due to the critical need for his expertise . . . [by Commerce] Secretary [Ronald H.] Brown."
In late 1994, the administration began pushing for renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status -- a designation that brings tariff exemptions and other trade privileges. But it was encountering fierce opposition from human rights groups because of China's record of abuses. Huang was assigned to lobby four members of Congress, and he reported back a day later that all would support the MFN renewal.
In response to recent queries from investigators examining the current fund-raising scandal, Commerce officials at first said Huang attended 37 briefings by Commerce's Office of Intelligence Liaison during his tenure. More recently, that figure was revised to show he attended 70 meetings in 1994, during which classified material "might have been discussed," and another 39 such meetings in 1995. Such briefings, often by CIA analysts, would not have afforded Huang access to the most sensitive intelligence information, officials said, but could have provided insights into U.S. strategy and policy initiatives.
Justice Department investigators are interested in Huang's attendance at the briefings -- which occurred at an average of more than twice a week -- because of the steady contacts records show he maintained with Chinese diplomats and officials at meetings and receptions throughout his tenure at Commerce. Huang's job description did not include China policy. Records also show that Huang made 70 calls to former Lippo colleagues while he was at Commerce, most of them to Juwati Judistrira, James Riady's Los Angeles-based secretary. Judistrira, contacted in Jakarta where she now lives, declined to comment. But a former Lippo executive said that Huang often called to set a time to talk to Riady, who was then in Jakarta. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has subpoenaed the White House for all material relevant to Judistrira.
Moving on to the DNC
In the summer of 1995, Joseph Giroir, whom Huang had met a decade earlier in Little Rock, approached DNC Chairman Donald L. Fowler about a job for Huang. Huang's telephone logs at Commerce show he placed 54 calls to Giroir, who was representing the Riady family on various legal matters. Giroir said in an interview the calls were "strictly personal."
At Huang's request, Giroir said he suggested to Fowler that Huang would make a good fund-raiser because of his 1992 campaign contacts.
On Sept. 13, Huang and Giroir accompanied James Riady and his wife Aileen to a 20-minute Oval Office meeting with Clinton that White House officials called a "social" session. James Riady visited again 10 days later -- a meeting in which the White House has said he mentioned to Clinton the importance of China's MFN status.
By late 1995, according to several officials, Huang's interest in moving to the DNC had been made known to Clinton through various channels. In November, these sources said, Clinton asked DNC finance chairman Marvin Rosen, "Where does it stand with John Huang?"
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said the president does not recall that conversation but would not rule it out. "He might have mentioned it in a hallway conversation or something," McCurry said. "But it was not a priority, on the top of his list of things to do."
Raising Big Money
After Huang got the DNC job in December, Gore thanked him in a personal letter. "I value your friendship," he wrote, "and I am grateful for your backing and encouragement. The President and I will need your help and active support to succeed and to continue our efforts in the years to come."
Huang laid out a plan to raise $7 million from the fast-growing but small Asian American community in 1996 by convincing them this was the way to gain political clout.
At 49, Huang was much older than most of the DNC's finance staff and an odd fit, several officials there said. Other "lay" fund-raisers -- businessmen who drew no salary but raised considerable sums -- tended to be high-profile and aggressive. Huang, by contrast, was "very humble, very driven, very unassuming," said a former DNC colleague. "John was the kind of guy who would go along with the decision that comes out of a meeting."
Huang looked perpetually tired from long hours and frequent commutes back to California. Colleagues described his red or bloodshot eyes.
But drive and dedication -- along with Huang's extensive connections -- paid off. Many of the guest lists Huang put together for Clinton fund-raisers read like a who's who of Asia, with key business and government executives from all over the region.
At a fund-raiser organized by Huang last July 30, for example, three wealthy Taiwanese businessmen, including the billionaire chairman of Taiwan's third largest company, had dinner with Clinton at Washington's Jefferson Hotel, dining on sea bass and saffron potatoes. Huang and James Riady also attended.
The dinner raised nearly $500,000. What remains unclear to congressional and Justice Department investigators, however, is precisely where that and other money Huang raised came from. Like the Taiwanese businessmen, many of Huang's contacts were neither U.S. citizens nor residents and were ineligible to contribute.
Huang raised big money on both coasts. At a $100,000 DNC fund-raiser held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her husband, Richard C. Blum, in San Francisco, Huang showed up with Dai Xiaoming, a Hong Kong businessman with Beijing ties. Clinton was the featured guest.
Huang told DNC officials that Dai was a prominent California businessman who wanted to contribute $50,000 to Clinton's reelection, though no such contribution shows up in contribution records. In fact, Dai had bought control of a Hong Kong property development concern from Lippo two years earlier, with financing from the Bank of China, Beijing's largest state-owned commercial bank. "John misled us on that," a DNC official said. "He really wanted [Dai] to be there." Huang, through his attorneys, declined to comment. In an interview, Blum said he understood that Dai was Huang's guest and that he had no knowledge of his Hong Kong investment or ties to Beijing.
Five days after the fund-raiser, FBI agents went to Feinstein's Capitol Hill office, warning that she was one of six members of Congress who might be targeted for illegal campaign contributions from China.
A Sudden Downfall
John Huang's end at the DNC came quickly.
On Oct. 3, after two days of meetings with Huang and several Clinton aides, DNC officials suspended him "as part of a downsizing."
A massive damage-control effort began. That same day, the DNC announced it was returning a $5,000 illegal contribution from a foreigner who attended a Buddhist temple fund-raiser featuring Gore in California. It would be the first of many such checks returned, most of them generated by Huang.
That evening, a U.S. marshal in Washington left a message on Huang's DNC voice mail while another turned up at his California home. Both said they had subpoenas requiring him to testify under oath.
Huang went to ground, taking refuge with a friend in Laurel, then at another friend's house in Potomac. He stayed for three days before heading into Washington. Huang finally accepted the subpoena, requiring him to testify in a civil lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch, a watchdog group alleging that the Commerce Department under Brown used its foreign trade missions to reward big DNC donors. After concluding his testimony, Huang left for seclusion in California.
When he finally emerges, Huang may be able to provide answers to the many riddles posed by the interweavings of his personal and professional lives. For now, however, such answers may be elusive, even to him.
During questioning in the deposition, Huang was asked why he had ducked the subpoena and disappeared. The man who described himself variously as the humble willow, the "F.O.B." and the China advocate who never tired answered with just a hint of impatience. "[It's] been a really confusing period of time for me," he said, " . . . all right?"
Staff writers Bob Woodward, Sharon LaFraniere, Lena H. Sun, Susan Schmidt and John Pomfret, special correspondent Anne Farris and researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company