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Mr. Trie's Return

Thursday, February 5, 1998; Page A16

THE SURPRISE surrender of Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie to federal authorities on Tuesday should provide a real shot in the arm to the Justice Department's much-criticized campaign finance task force. Mr. Trie was indicted recently on 15 felony counts of conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice and other offenses connected with an alleged scheme to funnel foreign money to Democratic causes through straw donors. The task force's initial indictment -- which followed a long period of seeming dormancy -- initially appeared only to be a faltering baby step. Since both Mr. Trie and his codefendant, Yuan Pei "Antonio" Pan, had gone abroad, the charges seemed more a symbolic gesture from prosecutors than a real step forward.

Mr. Trie's return, however, changes the entire context in which the task force's indictment of him should be considered. At the very least, it means that the indictment is no longer empty but has become a live set of charges against one of the players in the campaign finance saga. It could mean much more than that. Justice Department officials have stressed that no plea arrangement has been reached with Mr. Trie and that his cooperation with the task force investigation has not been secured. At the same time, the advantages for both sides of a plea deal of some kind are obvious. Mr. Trie could face, if he is convicted on all counts, many years in prison -- a prospect that could well bring him to the table. He, in turn, presumably has a lot of information the task force will want to hear. This is not to say that Mr. Trie would -- as many assume -- be able necessarily to confirm allegations of a broad Chinese conspiracy to influence the American political system, or that he would be able to prove alleged White House involvement in illegal fund-raising. But a deal could allow the department to begin addressing some of the central questions of the probe -- a prospect that could well bring task force lawyers to the table. Mr. Trie's return, therefore, holds out the first real possibility of a major breakthrough for the Justice Department investigation.

It is possible, of course, that Mr. Trie has come back merely to face trial and rebut the charges brought against him -- as his lawyer's initial statement implied. Mr. Trie returned voluntarily, after all, and he remains innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, his return will not eliminate the skepticism many people feel toward the task force, both on the grounds that it is insufficiently independent and on the grounds that it has not been robust enough in its investigation. But even if no deal occurs and Mr. Trie goes to trial, the task force deserves credit for its part in arranging his return. It represents a real step toward a public accounting of the Byzantine financing of the 1996 elections.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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