John Huang was once a little-known Democratic fund-raiser, his party's chief link to Asian American donors and the subject just this summer of President Clinton's effusive praise. Now he is a man in hiding -- relieved of his duties, staying with friends and relatives, and communicating with party officials clandestinely. He telephones his attorney, who then connects the calls.

"The reason is because I did not want to reveal my phone numbers to people . . . " Huang said this week in a sworn deposition in a civil case. "I did not want my friends or relatives to be harassed by the media so I had to protect that information."

Huang's odyssey -- he insists he did nothing wrong -- illustrates how quickly an obscure controversy about an American political party's fund-raising practices can turn into a behemoth that now stretches from Washington to Taiwan. The latest twist is that Secret Service logs show Huang had a closer connection to the White House than was previously known -- at least 78 trips to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since July 1995.

What started as a small story in September about a $250,000 donation to the Democratic National Committee from a U.S. subsidiary of a South Korean company -- tucked away on page 16 of the Los Angeles Times -- has become a fast-moving, full-blown brouhaha. For the moment, it is hovering over the final days of Campaign '96, but it is not likely to go away anytime soon.

Republicans have asked for an independent counsel, and Attorney General Janet Reno has 30 days to review and respond to the request. And, if the Republicans retain a majority in either chamber of Congress, there almost surely will be congressional hearings. Beyond the potential effect on Clinton's second term, if he is reelected, the controversy has cast a shadow on political fund-raising techniques and raises broader questions about foreign influence in the American political process.

Were the fund-raising activities of Huang and a host of others the result of an overzealous effort to reelect the president in which the party's normal checks and procedures fell by the wayside? Or was there a deliberate effort to circumvent the law, secretly raising money from foreign sources, that could lead to the president's inner circle? Where, ultimately, does the buck stop?

"I have a rule when evaluating the political impact of a scandal," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "Can the public understand it? Would it make for a good dramatic series on TV? Watergate meets that test. Whitewater doesn't."

The Asian money-trail affair is still in a gray area, and is a long way from Watergate, the 1972 scandal involving improprieties of President Richard M. Nixon's reelection committee. "We have the end of the ball of string," Baker said. "It hasn't really unraveled yet. We don't know where it leads. If it turns out we had a major foreign policy decision that was influenced by foreign contributions, then that's a big deal." So far, no such link has been revealed.

Though it is against federal law for U.S. politicians and parties to take money from foreign sources, the law is lined with caveats that often make such illegal contributions difficult to detect. For instance, foreign corporations can't give money, but their U.S. subsidiaries can. And the nation's election-law policing agency, the Federal Election Commission, is regarded by many in the field as a toothless tiger.

Like many of the political scandals of the modern era -- if this can be so described -- it has many tentacles, multiple players of undetermined importance and no linear track. It snakes through the Commerce Department, where Huang worked for 16 months as a deputy assistant secretary for international trade, through the labyrinth of Arkansas politics, to the door of the DNC.

What is known thus far is this: The Democratic Party has tapped into a burgeoning Asian American donor network to an extent that was previously unknown. Huang himself raised $4 million to $5 million this year alone. But more than $1 million that was derived from this network has come under scrutiny, including the $250,000 donation from the South Korean company, $140,000 raised at a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles, $325,000 contributed by an Indian businessman living in California and $450,000 donated by an Indonesian landscape architect and his wife who lived in Northern Virginia and were connected to the Jakarta-based financial conglomerate called the Lippo Group, Huang's employer before he joined the Clinton administration. Under pressure, the DNC has asked the FEC to investigate those contributions and others.

It also has been learned that a Little Rock lawyer and golfing partner of Clinton's, Mark Grobmyer, who also worked with the Lippo Group, passed cards around Indonesia identifying himself as a White House "liaison." Meanwhile, a spokesman for a Taiwanese politician has said that Mark Middleton -- who once worked in the White House for then-Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty and is now a businessman who promotes Asian-U.S. deals -- tried unsuccessfully to solicit a donation to Clinton from the politician in exchange for promised presidential access.

A separate allegation concerning Middleton is that he accompanied a senior official in Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang Party to a Democratic fund-raiser in September 1995, where the Taiwanese met Clinton in the receiving line. According to a recent report in a Hong Kong-based Chinese language newsweekly, the official, Liu Tai-ying, offered at a meeting with Middleton earlier that summer to donate $15 million to the DNC. Liu flatly denied the allegation. Yesterday, however, a Taiwanese consultant told a Taipei news conference that he had been the source of the magazine story and had a "secret witness" who could verify that the offer was made. The consultant, Chen Chao-ping, said he did not know of any money changing hands.

Middleton said in a statement yesterday that he never engaged in improper foreign fund-raising.

The Justice Department also is looking into allegations from Taiwan that the de facto U.S. ambassador there, Arkansas lawyer James C. Wood Jr., pressured Taiwanese businessmen for campaign donations.

But what is not known is perhaps more important: If foreign entities were trying to influence the American political system, what, if anything, did they get in return for their money? What motivated such large individual donations from such apparently unlikely contributors? What were the procedures for checking large contributions at the DNC and were they followed? These are only some of the questions that have gone unanswered by officials at the DNC and White House.

To understand the affair, it is helpful to know some main characters.

One of the first to surface was Cheong Am America Inc., a recently established American subsidiary of a South Korean electronics company that donated $250,000 to the DNC. The party returned the contribution more than a month ago, after the Los Angeles Times raised questions. The DNC said it discovered the donation was actually from the Korean parent company -- a violation of the federal law banning political donations from foreign corporations. Only U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens -- "green card" holders -- can contribute to U.S. political campaigns.

The second set of players are the Lippo Group, the Asian conglomerate for which Huang was once U.S. representative, and Lippo's founding family, led by Indonesian billionaire Mochtar Riady, whose son, James, established a relationship with Clinton during the 1970s in Arkansas and later ran the group's West Coast operations.

Also connected to the Lippo Group is the Indonesian couple, Arief and Soraya Wiriandinata, who donated $450,000 to the DNC -- money Huang raised. Soraya Wiriandinata's father was a partner of Mochtar Riady.

The DNC has defended the legality of the contribution, but the donation has raised questions because the bulk of the amount came after the couple returned to Jakarta to live and because they led a modest lifestyle here.

Then there is the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., site of the April fund-raiser, attended by Vice President Gore, that grossed $140,000 for the party. Residents of Hsi Lai and other Buddhist temples, many of whom live on $40 monthly stipends and whose immigration status prevents them from voting, donated up to $5,000 each. One $5,000 donation was returned by the party after the Wall Street Journal reported that a woman from a Texas branch of the temple who was visiting Hsi Lai on the day of the fund-raiser said she was approached by an active Democrat and given $5,000 in small bills. The Journal quoted the Texas woman as saying she was asked to write a check for that amount and attend the fund-raiser. After that interview was reported, the woman was said to have left the country on an extended "retreat" and has not been located again.

A fourth pair of players are Grobmyer and Middleton, whose connections to current fund-raising efforts remain unclear.

But no one appears as central to the story as Huang.

Born in China in 1945, he first met Clinton in the 1980s, when he was stationed in Hong Kong as the Far East representative of a Memphis-based bank. He later joined the Lippo Group.

Ironically, he sought government work here, he said, because, among other things, he wanted to raise the visibility of Asian Americans in the public sector.

This week he appeared before a video camera at the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal group that has filed a civil suit against the Commerce Department.

The group deposed Huang to answer questions about department trade missions he arranged for Ronald H. Brown, the late commerce secretary. Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that any additional questions to Huang must be posed in writing, which was probably a relief to him.

"I went through quite a bit in the last few weeks," Huang said in his deposition. "The whole media {is} trying to harass me and trying to get hold of me. It has been really a confusing period of time for me." Staff writer Paul Blustein contributed to this report.