Clinton Fund-Raiser to Plead Guilty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 1999; Page A2
Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, the Little Rock restaurateur who became a controversial fund-raiser for President Clinton, entered into a plea agreement with the Justice Department yesterday, winning leniency in exchange for telling all in an investigation of improper campaign contributions originating in China.
The deal with Trie came nearly 2 1/2 years after federal investigators first pursued him as a key figure in their probe of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. While Justice Department officials hailed the arrangement as a sign of progress, critics of the campaign finance probe argued that so much time has passed that Trie's testimony is unlikely to have a major impact.
As the conduit for more than $600,000 in contributions to the Democratic National Committee that had to be returned as coming from illegal or suspect sources, Trie has long been viewed as a potential font of information on whether Democratic Party or White House officials knowingly accepted improper funds and on alleged efforts by the government of China to influence the presidential election.
"He could have had a lot to say, a lot of important things, but this deal now is two years too late," said Michael Madigan, a Washington attorney who served as chief counsel to the campaign finance investigation by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.
Trie, 50, agreed to plead guilty to two counts of violating federal election laws--one felony and one misdemeanor--and will receive a maximum of three years' probation, according to court papers. Under a 15-count federal indictment issued Jan. 29, 1998, Trie faced the possibility of a prison sentence and a hefty fine if convicted. Those charges are to be dropped under the terms of the plea deal if he fully cooperates.
The plea agreement states that prosecutors will determine in the future whether Trie's cooperation is satisfactory, indicating that he has not revealed in advance what he is prepared to say. Trie is only the second figure in the campaign finance investigation to agree to cooperate with prosecutors. Johnny Chung, a California businessman who, like Trie, was accused of serving as a conduit for illegal foreign contributions, also cooperated, although his assistance has not led to the indictment of any other individuals.
After long refusing to talk to investigators except to proclaim his innocence, Trie suddenly gave in yesterday on the fourth day of an obstruction-of-justice trial in Little Rock. The chief witness against him had been his former office manager, Maria Mapili, who testified under a deal of her own that Trie had ordered her to destroy business records that were under subpoena by Senate investigators and federal prosecutors.
The key allegation against Trie stemming from the 1996 campaign is that he used contributions to purchase access to high-level government officials--including 22 visits to the White House and a nomination to a federal commission on foreign trade--with the objective of advancing his private business interests. But it has never been clear what Trie may have sought or gained for himself or his business associates.
Two of those associates have drawn intense scrutiny and seem certain to be the subject of extensive questioning when Trie is debriefed by investigators. Yuan Pei "Antonio" Pan was indicted with Trie as his coconspirator in an alleged scheme to enlist citizens and legal residents as "straw donors" who made contributions to the DNC and were then reimbursed with funds collected from nonresident foreign nationals who are not allowed to contribute to U.S. political campaigns.
Little is known about Pan, a Taiwanese national who was a senior executive with a company that forms part of the Lippo Group, the Indonesia-based conglomerate that has been associated with several Democratic fund-raising controversies. Congressional and Justice Department investigators have said they are eager to ask Trie whether Pan served as a link to another former Lippo employee, John Huang, who worked at the Commerce Department and later at the DNC, and who was at the center of the campaign finance scandal.
Another Trie associate, Ng Lap Seng, is even more mysterious. The head of a real estate development conglomerate based in Macao, Ng appears to have bankrolled Trie without getting much in return apart from 10 visits to the White House and seats at Clinton campaign events. "The source of Ng's funds and what he or those behind him hoped to gain through Trie remain unknown," said the final report by the Senate investigative committee.
A native of Taiwan who came to the United States in 1974, Trie opened the Fu Lin Restaurant, a Chinese eatery in Little Rock that was one of Clinton's favorites when he was governor of Arkansas. In 1991, Trie launched his own firm, Daihatsu International Trading Co., that had business ventures in the United States and Asia. After Clinton became president, Trie set up shop in Washington and began contributing significant sums to the Democratic Party.
When he first came under suspicion in late 1996, Trie fled to China, where he once boasted to an interviewer that he was forever beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. Then, in February 1998 after the Justice Department had organized an international dragnet to apprehend him if he ever left China, Trie voluntarily returned to Washington to battle the indictment that had been brought against him.
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