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  •   Personal, Business Ties Blur in Allegations About Herman

    Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman
    Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman (AP File Photo)
    By Charles R. Babcock
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 28, 1998; Page A14

    They met at the Halloween party Vanessa Weaver throws every year at her $1 million Potomac home, but Weaver says she now rues the day in 1994 that she introduced her new boyfriend to her longtime confidante Alexis M. Herman, now secretary of labor.

    For it was Laurent J. Yene's allegations, after his two-year romantic and business relationship with Weaver broke up, that triggered the independent counsel investigation of Herman requested earlier this month by Attorney General Janet Reno. On Tuesday, a special three-judge panel appointed Maine lawyer Ralph I. Lancaster Jr. to the post.

    Yene, a citizen of the West African country of Cameroon, has claimed to federal investigators that Herman, while working in a top White House job, had an agreement to get 10 percent of any business she generated for a Weaver-Yene company. He also alleges that Herman directed Weaver to solicit illegal campaign donations in 1996 from a foreign businessman who wanted to meet President Clinton and get help on a federal license for a satellite phone project.

    Herman and Weaver have denied the charges, with Weaver's lawyer, E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., calling Yene "a vengeful, lying user" who tried to extort money from his client.

    In the unusually detailed eight-page filing with the special court panel, Reno said her investigation developed no evidence "clearly demonstrating Secretary Herman's involvement in these matters and substantial evidence suggesting that she may not have been involved."

    Her report didn't address Yene's overall credibility but Reno said much of Yene's story had been corroborated and concluded further investigation was warranted because of "inconsistent and evolving explanations by other critical witnesses."

    Justice aides said the limits of the independent counsel law, as much as the evidence, forced Reno to seek an outside prosecutor. That didn't placate Barcella or W. Neil Eggleston, Herman's lawyer.

    "The Department of Justice treated Secretary Herman shabbily," Eggleston said, and his client Herman pronounced herself "extremely baffled" by the decision. "I think this is an act of investigative cowardice," Barcella added.

    Yene first went public with his charges in April 1997, while Herman's nomination as labor secretary was pending. He told reporters then that Herman provided White House access to him and Weaver while they negotiated potential contracts with the Congo Republic and with a Singapore businessman involved on the satellite project. He didn't publicly mention illegal donations or the alleged 10 percent Herman business interest at the time.

    This outline of the dealings between Weaver, Herman and Yene that led to Reno's decision is based on the attorney general's submission, interviews with lawyers and spokesmen for Herman and Weaver, court papers and documents that Yene provided to investigators. Yene could not be reached for comment.

    The two women had been close friends since the 1980s, when Weaver worked at Procter & Gamble Co. and Herman was a consultant on diversity matters for the firm. After Herman joined the Clinton White House in 1993, as head of the Office of Public Liaison, she sold her own diversity consulting business to Weaver for $88,000.

    Weaver, who has a PhD in clinical psychology and is in her mid-forties, moved to Washington in early 1994 and bought her large home in Potomac, with tennis courts and swimming pool. Over the next few years, she visited the White House on about 25 occasions -- at times with Yene and clients -- for tours, receptions, and lunches with Herman. In 1996, Weaver and her sister Caryliss were invited to accompany Herman on a Commerce Department trip for female business executives to Mexico, although only Caryliss attended.

    For a time, Weaver even listed the Office of Public Liaison on her resume as a client. She had done some volunteer work for Herman, but realizes she shouldn't have cited the office as a client, Barcella said. Herman said during her confirmation as labor secretary that she never used her position to advance Weaver's business but acknowledged that her many White House meetings with Weaver and her clients might pose appearance problems.

    Weaver met Yene in the fall of 1994 at a reception on African issues, Weaver's lawyer said, and soon introduced him to Herman at the Halloween party. By mid-1995, Weaver and Yene were living together and going into business together -- in a Weaver-financed venture they dubbed International Investments and Business Development (IIBD). In a lawsuit against Yene last year, Weaver said she advanced nearly $100,000 of her own money and $121,000 from her consulting firm, Alignment Strategies Inc., to IIBD.

    In 1995, Weaver had introduced Herman to Mireille Lissouba, daughter of the then-Congo president, at a dinner party. That October, Herman invited Lissouba to lunch at the White House, along with Yene and Weaver. Aides for Weaver and Herman said the lunch was purely social. But Yene claimed that at the time, IIBD was negotiating a contract with the Congo worth several hundred thousand dollars to schedule events on President Pascal Lissouba's planned trip here.

    Reno cited the occasion, without naming Lissouba, in her court filing as one piece of evidence that IIBD benefited from its access to Herman to impress clients. Yene told reporters last year that Congo officials signed the contract, but then canceled it. Weaver knew Yene was seeking the business, but didn't know there was a contract until investigators showed it to her during the recent Justice inquiry, a spokeswoman said.

    In the spring of 1996, Yene began dealing with Abdul Rahman, a businessman from Singapore who had a contract with a Washington-based company, Mobile Communications Holdings Inc., to seek financing overseas for a planned satellite phone system. MCHI was trying to get a license from the Federal Communications Commission for the network.

    In late May, Weaver and Yene introduced Rahman to Herman before a social event at the Four Seasons Hotel, White House aides said last year. A week later, Rahman hired IIBD to help market the satellite network in Africa and wired $15,000 to the firm's bank account, its first revenue.

    In June, Weaver found a fax from Yene to Rahman saying IIBD would "work to expedite FCC licensing of the satellite system," and requesting a $5 million fee upon licensing and 10 percent equity in each business established in Africa. She faxed Rahman back, saying Yene's proposal contained "inaccuracies and misrepresentations" and that expediting licensing "is clearly beyond the capabilities provided by IIBD."

    A source close to MCHI said Rahman had no marketing authority for the satellite, and never raised the cash he promised, so his contract with the company expired in August.

    The next month, Yene and Weaver split up.

    Also in September, Weaver started her own business relationship with Rahman and for the first time in her life, pledged to give big money to the Democratic Party. Early in September, she made a $250,000 pledge to the Unity Fund, a fund-raising drive to help House and Senate candidates.

    Later that month, Weaver's main company, Alignment Strategies Inc., signed a $500,000 marketing contract, starting Oct. 1, to represent Rahman around the world. Weaver received a $200,000 signing bonus from Rahman in late October, Barcella said.

    On Oct. 23, Rahman, Weaver and Herman attended a fund-raising event in suburban Virginia, where Rahman briefly met the president. Two days later, Weaver and her sister Caryliss wrote a series of checks totaling $136,000 to the Democratic National Committee and state parties in California, New Jersey, Georgia and Kansas. Later, their company gave $100,000 to a tax-exempt group registering minorities to vote. Party fund-raisers were urging donors to back the organization.

    On Nov. 1, a Rahman associate sent $50,000 to Weaver's firm -- on Rahman's behalf. Rahman and Weaver said the money was for a separate deal, the planned joint purchase of a commercial building, the Justice filing noted, while the associate said it was for something else. Reno noted: "We have received conflicting stories about this payment and its intended purpose." Weaver later returned that money.

    Reno's court filing noted the closeness in dates between Weaver's large donations and Rahman's payments to her company and the fact that Herman attended the fund-raising event with Weaver and her client. It added that "it is not plausible" that Weaver, who had never made substantial donations before, would do so without consulting her close friend Herman.

    But Herman's attorney Eggleston said Justice investigators never asked Herman if she was aware of her friend's plans to help the party. "If asked, she would have told the Department that she knew that Dr. Weaver was deeply concerned about the 1996 presidential election, that she strongly believed that African Americans who could afford to give should do so, and that she had decided to make substantial contributions. Secretary Herman was not aware of the amounts of the contributions, when they were made or where they were directed."

    Barcella said that his client had enough money in her bank accounts to have made the donations even if Rahman hadn't paid her. Rahman couldn't be reached at his office in Singapore. His attorney said it was premature for him to make any comment about Yene's accusations.

    Investigators pored over the two women's personal bank records, seeking to trace possible evidence that Herman received 10 percent of IIBD's revenue, as Yene alleged. Reno's filing said they found no evidence Herman received any money, but probers felt there were "inconsistent and competing explanations" for some checks. Barcella said Justice never told him there were unexplained payments.

    Staff researchers Alice Crites and Mary Lou White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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