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The Exploits of Charlie Trie

Sunday, August 3, 1997; Page C06

The exploits of indefatigable Clinton bag man Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie produced the hit of the week at last week's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings on campaign finance. Mr. Trie in early 1996 had temporarily shifted his attention from the president's reelection campaign to his legal defense fund. He had showed up once with a brown envelope containing $460,000 in $1,000 contributions, some on sequentially numbered money orders made out in different names but the same handwriting.

Fund officials, who say they had never heard of Mr. Trie, were trying to figure out what to do about that when, lo, he showed up a second time a month later. This time he was carrying a shopping bag. Michael Cardozo, executive director of the defense fund, remembered being less than overjoyed. "I said to myself, 'My God, he's got a million dollars this time,' Mr. Cardozo testified.

Mr. Trie has left the country – he is in China – and has declined thus far to testify before the committee. But the hearings, now adjourned until September, provided a pretty good outline if not a full picture of his operation. Clearly one of the services he performed was to launder illegal but early sought-after contributions from abroad. The hearings offered these glimpses:

(1) Mr. Cardozo testified that at one point he met at the White House with Mrs. Clinton and deputy chief of staff and de facto campaign director Harold Ickes. He told them about the suspect contributions from Mr. Trie. Mrs. Clinton, he said, told him in turn that the fund should vet all contributions carefully. But apparently nothing was done, then or later, to vet the large amounts of money that Mr. Trie was simultaneously funneling through the Democratic National Committee to the campaign.

(2) An FBI agent testified that in the period of 1994-96 Mr. Trie received more than $900,000 in wire transfers from an Asian businessman, Ng Lap Seng. Mr. Ng, who is based in Macao, is said to be a sometime business partner of Mr. Trie's. There appeared to be a correlation between the wire transfers and transfers of money by Mr. Trie in turn to the DNC.

Only after the hearings with regard to Mr. Ng were over did the White House disclose, in response to a longstanding committee inquiry, that Mr. Ng had visited the White House 12 times during the relevant period. Most of the visits, the White House said, were social calls on former White House aide Mark Middleton, an Arkansan who now has business dealings in Asia. Three others were described as White House tours, and once Mr. Ng attended a dinner for campaign contributors as Mr. Trie's guest. The committee felt used by the White House, in that the news of the visits came only after the hearings had ended. Democratic senators joined Republicans in voting unanimously Friday to compel production of documents on time, by subpoena, in the future.

(3) Mr. Trie's role as a conduit for campaign contributions seems to have been well known. An agricultural cooperative in Thailand wired him $100,000 a couple of weeks before two of its executives were to meet the president at a White House coffee. At least half the money was converted to cash shortly afterward; what happened to it next is unclear. The coffee was arranged by DNC fund-raiser John Huang and a businesswoman, Pauline Kanchanalak, who was the co-op's U. S. representative and herself a major Clinton campaign contributor. Some if not all of her contributions have been returned by the DNC because of questions about their source.

Before Congress left town last week, the principal Senate sponsors of a campaign finance reform bill warned that, if the Republican leadership continued to refuse to give the bill floor time, they would start in September to tie up the Senate and force consideration by offering it as an amendment to other legislation. The president, whose own abuses of the campaign finance law are part of the rationale for the legislation, joined them in the call. Once again he converts his own record of misconduct into an agenda.

It's time, past time, that Congress begin to clean up this system that has been so cynically exploited by all, and in particular by this White House. The ease with which money flows now into campaigns – the ways in which candidates have come to slurp up every bit they can, from whatever source, no questions asked and obvious implications ignored – needs no additional documentation. The Trie hearings are a vivid example, but only the latest in a long string.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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