A FEDERAL grand jury has been sitting since August in Miami, exploring allegations that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown conspired to accept a $700,000 payment from agents of the Vietnamese government in exchange for his influence to lift the 1975 Vietnam trade embargo. Under the Hobbs Act, soliciting a bribe is a federal crime, even if money never changes hands.
Many in Congress are concerned that the Clinton Justice Department is conducting the grand jury investigation of Brown, a Clinton Cabinet member. Attorney General Janet Reno concedes the Brown case epitomizes the type of case that calls for an independent counsel but has not appointed a special prosecutor.
Brown's conflicting statements about his Vietnamese contacts, coupled with the Clinton administration's failure to respond substantively to numerous congressional inquiries, have raised questions on Capitol Hill about the impartiality of the Brown probe.
A Vietnamese-American businessman, Binh Ly, first cast the allegations against Brown. Mr. Ly readily admits that he had no direct contact with Brown, and he reportedly passed an extensive FBI polygraph test last February. In October, I invited Ly to meet with a number of my congressional colleagues in Washington to present his case against the commerce secretary.
Ly said he traveled last December to Vietnam with Nguyen Hao, a former high-ranking South Vietnamese official. Hao had mysteriously been restrained by the Communist government in Vietnam after the 1975 fall of Saigon. Ly said he and Hao met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet. Ly was to draft a letter to Brown, to be signed by the prime minister, asking Brown to provide a ``road map'' for new relations with Washington. Following the Vietnam trip, according to Ly, Mr. Hao told him that Brown was going to receive a $700,000 fee and exclusive representation for new business in Vietnam.
Hao later told Ly that an account in Banque Indosuez in Singapore had been opened for the Vietnam government. Law enforcement officials confirmed that the Vietnamese government transferred an undisclosed sum of money to East Asian banks. Amazingly, Ly was never called to testify before the grand jury.
Brown, questioned by the press Aug. 13, said he had never met Hao. On Sept. 27, after ABC News and the Miami Herald publicized meetings between Hao and Brown, Brown changed his story. His attorney acknowledged three meetings with Hao, one in February at the Commerce Department after Brown's confirmation.
Whatever the outcome of the federal grand jury, Brown has a larger problem with Congress and the American people. Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 29, Brown pledged to me that he had no involvement in two White House decisions to ease the Vietnam trade embargo. Yet reliable sources confirm that Commerce Department officials actively promoted easing the trade embargo at National Security Council meetings. It is inconceivable that the secretary of commerce would not have been involved in a major policy issue while his assistants were.
These allegations come at a critical crossroads in Vietnam policy, and unless Democratic committee chairmen consent to questioning Brown or his key aides about their roles in Vietnam policymaking, these important allegations will never be clarified.
President Clinton pledged that further concessions to Hanoi would hinge on a full accounting of the 2,200 Americans listed as missing in action in Southeast Asia. Yet, by relaxing the embargo, Mr. Clinton has diminished US leverage to get the full accounting that the families of our POW/MIAs deserve.