WASHINGTON — Piece by piece, the Senate committee looking into campaign-finance violations is assembling the puzzle of how foreign money got into last year's elections.
It's been slow going, but as the committee now begins August recess, it has laid a foundation for witnesses in September.
"If you're really doing an investigation ... you have to start with a building-block basis," says Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and leader of the investigation.
The senators agree that China had a plan to influence American elections. Much of that activity focused on Congress and the states, and most of it was legal. They want to know how much of the Chinese plan was implemented and if the men who funneled foreign contributions to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Presidential Legal Defense Fund did so at Chinese behest. They are trying to learn if the Chinese also targeted the presidential elections and whether US national security was compromised.
So far little evidence supports such allegations. While everyone agrees that illegal foreign money infiltrated the system, the source of that money and the motives for donating it remain unclear.
"The question is whether or not there was negligence, a deliberate avoidance, people turning a blind eye..., or whether people knew what they were doing," in accepting funds, Senator Thompson says.
Much of the campaign-finance maelstrom has swirled around John Huang, but no evidence has emerged that Mr. Huang passed on classified information. He has offered to testify if given limited immunity. The committee has yet to accept, concerned that granting immunity could interfere with a Justice Department investigation.
The hearings have focused on Huang's activities in three jobs:
* While working for the Lippo Group, a conglomerate owned by the Riady family in Indonesia and partly by the Chinese government, Huang gave $50,000 to the DNC from Lippo's California subsidiary and was repaid by the parent company - apparently a violation of US law.
* As deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, Huang received 37 CIA intelligence briefings and saw hundreds of classified documents. During this time, he continued his contacts with the Lippo Group.
* As a DNC fund-raiser in 1996, Huang brought in $3.4 million, ostensibly from the Asian-American community. The DNC has returned about half that money after learning that it may have come from foreign sources.
A Little Rock, Ark., restaurateur and friend of the president, Yah Lin (Charlie) Trie raised almost $800,000 for Mr. Clinton's legal defense fund and gave $220,000 to the Democrats. Much of the money was later returned because it appeared to come from Ng Lap Seng, Mr. Trie's business partner in Macao.
On one occasion, Trie walked into the defense fund's office with an envelope containing $460,000 in checks and money orders. He was also appointed to a presidential commission on Pacific trade. Now in China, Trie refuses to cooperate with the investigation.
Johnny Chung, a frequent White House visitor, got $150,000 from the Bank of China just before donating $50,000 to the DNC. Mr. Chung gave the money directly to Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff and got five Chinese businessmen admitted to watch the president give his weekly radio address. This happened after the DNC, suspicious of the donation, had turned down Chung's request to get the men into the event.
Democrats say there is no proof the foreign money went to the DNC and note that Chung often received overseas wire transfers. He refuses to cooperate with investigators.
National Policy Forum
The National Policy Forum (NPF) was set up by Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Haley Barbour as a conservative think tank. But Democrats insist that the forum was not separate from the RNC and was used to collect foreign money the RNC could not legally receive.
The RNC gave $2.5 million in start-up funds to the forum, but recalled the loan in 1994. The NPF then asked a Hong Kong businessman, Ambrous Young, to put up collateral for a $2.1-million bank loan. Mr. Young's firm wired the money to its US subsidiary and the NPF repaid the RNC $1.6 million before the elections. The forum, which could legally receive foreign funding, eventually collapsed, and the RNC paid Young for part of the loan. Young wrote off the remaining $700,000.
Democrats say the money was pumped into GOP races at a crucial moment, which gave Republicans control of Congress.