HE'S the lobbyist inside the gates. The ultimate dealmaker in a town that reveres the art of the deal as much as Wall Street does. But did Ron Brown make one deal too many?
Ly Thanh Binh has been saying for the past year that he did. The Vietnamese-American businessman from Florida charges that the commerce secretary agreed to help Vietnam normalize relations with the United States in return for a secret $700,000 payment. Mr. Binh has told journalists and Capitol Hill staff that his former business partner, Nguyen Van Hao, an emissary of the Hanoi government, agreed to the offer in November 1992. The money, he says, was to be deposited in a Singapore bank account controlled by Marc Ashton, a friend of Mr. Brown's.
Brown adamantly denies the allegations, and no proof has been forthcoming from Binh or anyone else. But Binh's statements are being taken seriously enough by federal prosecutors that a grand jury in Miami has been investigating the case.
The charges against Brown have raised concerns in the White House and cast a cloud over President Clinton's efforts to end influence peddling in Washington. The accusations are an unwelcome reminder of Brown's previous job as a high-priced lawyer-lobbyist with such clients as Jean-Claude (Baby-Doc) Duvalier's Haitian government.
At the very least, say veteran Washington observers like columnist Albert Hunt, the commerce secretary was probably guilty of bad judgment in not watching his step more closely in today's tough ethics climate.
While Brown may have suffered some public relations damage, his attorney, Reid Weingarten, says in an interview that ``there's not a scintilla of evidence to corroborate Binh's allegations.'' Prosecutors, he says, ``are [now] satisfied that no crime was committed'' and ``I'm hopeful to optimistic'' that the grand jury will finish its work by Christmas. A `different' view
GOP congressmen take a different view. They argue that Brown may have broken the Trading With the Enemies Act, among other laws. The case for the prosecution rests on several points - none of them conclusive, but, taken together, they say, suggest that the charges against Brown can't be dismissed out of hand.
* When Binh's charges first became public, Brown repeatedly denied that he knew Mr. Hao. Then, the Miami Herald revealed that Brown had met with Hao and Mr. Ashton three times, once before his selection as commerce secretary and twice after. It turned out that Brown had even sent Hao Christmas greetings. Brown then admitted that he had met with them, but said he had never discussed any payment.
* Binh passed a six-hour lie-detector test administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But, Mr. Weingarten says, ``A lie-detector test can mean a lot of different things. He could be delusional.''
* The administration has declined to lift the long-standing ban on trade with Vietnam, but it has eased sanctions some, agreeing to back international loans for Hanoi and allow US companies to bid for contracts financed by such loans. Brown denied to Congress that he was involved in those decisions, but in a Nov. 5 House Foreign Affairs hearing, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said he had had a ``very limited conversation'' with Brown regarding the Vietnam embargo. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Brown ``may have been in larger meetings on the subject.''
``If that's the case, Brown lied to Congress,'' says Rep. Dan Burton (D) of Indiana. Weingarten replies that a passing conversation between Brown and Mr. Bentsen was not ``improper.'' ``The real question was: Did Brown have policy responsibility over Vietnam?'' The answer, he says, is no.
Instead, a career Commerce employee attended White House meetings and voiced support for easing the embargo on Vietnam - a position traditionally favored by the department.
* Federal authorities reportedly have verified that the Hanoi government was in the process of setting up a Singapore bank account, just as Binh had claimed. There is no evidence, however, that Brown ever took any money from an account.
Weingarten says the charges already have gotten more attention than they deserve. But Republicans on the Hill think the Justice Department hasn't been doing enough to pursue the investigation. Hill aides say, for instance, that Binh has not been called before the grand jury. Lack of cooperation
The GOP is conducting its own probe, but one aide says the Commerce Department is ``stonewalling'' their requests for documents. And Democratic committee chairmen are refusing to hold hearings on the matter.
In September, Representative Burton and other GOP House members called for a special prosecutor to investigate the case.
Attorney General Janet Reno refused their request on the grounds that career Justice Department employees could do an adequate job.
``This stinks to high heaven,'' Burton says. ``If this had been a Republican acting like this - say, Ed Meese - congressional committees and independent prosecutors would be all over him.''
In response, Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts says it was largely GOP opposition that kept Congress from renewing the independent-counsel law.