WASHINGTON -- The legal defense fund established for President Clinton and his wife said yesterday that it had returned or rejected more than $639,000 in questionable donations after private investigators were unable to verify the sources of the money.
The returned contributions amount to about a third of all the money raised by the fund, which was set up to help pay the Clintons' Whitewater legal bills. The contributions were raised by an Arkansas businessman, Charles Yah Lin Trie, who was
appointed to a presidential commission on Asian trade after delivering the first $460,000.
Tens of thousands of dollars raised by Trie for the Democratic Party are also under review as part of the party's investigation of dubious campaign donations, which has resulted so far in the return of about $1.5 million.
Lawyers for the defense fund have known since at least June about the questionable contributions provided by Trie, a Little Rock restaurateur who runs Daihatsu International, an American trading company with offices in Washington, Arkansas and Beijing. But they chose not to make the information public until yesterday, when the lawyers briefed reporters about the money.
Trie gave Michael Cardozo, the executive director of the defense fund, two envelopes containing about $460,000 in contributions March 21. Cardozo told Hillary Rodham Clinton and Harold Ickes, the deputy chief of staff, about the donations April 4.
Cardozo said he had told Mrs. Clinton and Ickes that the fund was examining whether the contributions satisfied its rules: All donors must be U.S. citizens, must be clearly identified and cannot give more than $1,000 a year. The envelopes contained checks and money orders written out in the same handwriting, even though they were supposed to have come from different people.
Some of the funds that also appeared suspicious were raised by a Buddhist organization that is based in Taiwan and has chapter houses in the United States, Cardozo said.
Cardozo said that Mrs. Clinton had at first not recognized Trie's name, but when he told her that Trie had operated some restaurants in Arkansas, Mrs. Clinton had begun to recall him. "Only then did she say, 'Oh, I think that is one of the restaurants where Bill used to go for lunch when he was governor and the restaurant was near the Capi- tol,' " Cardozo said.
Two weeks after that meeting, the White House announced the appointment of Trie to a 16-member advisory panel on Asian trade.
Lanny Davis, a special White House counsel, said there were "absolutely no connections" between the legal defense fund contributions and Trie's appointment to the commission. A White House official who asked not to be identified said that Trie had long been known to the president.
The official said that the White House counsel's office had been told about the situation in June when the money was returned and that the White House had "fully supported the decision."
At a news conference yesterday at which the fund announced that it had rejected and returned the money solicited by Trie, Cardozo said that all of the $460,000 had been returned by June. Nonetheless, the trust decided at its semiannual briefing in August not to disclose that the money had been returned.
The briefing occurred the same week as the Republican National Convention, although Cardozo said that there had been no political considerations in the decision not to disclose the returned money.
"As a matter of practice, we do not disclose money that we do not accept," Cardozo said.
Since then, congressional Republicans have begun investigations into a series of questionable donations raised by a prominent Indonesian family and their associates.
Cardozo said that some of the money had been given by members of Ching Hai, a Buddhist organization based in Taiwan with congregations in cities in the United States, but he did not say how much. He said that there was no evidence that any of the money had come from abroad and that all of the checks and money orders bore Social Security numbers.
Cardozo said that of the $460,000, about $70,000 did not appear on its face to meet the fund's requirements and that it had been returned to Trie. He said the remainder was given back in June.
He said Trie approached him in April and said that he had an additional $179,000 in contributions for the defense fund. Cardozo said he had told Trie that the fund would not accept that money until it had investigated the money given by Trie in March.
Cardozo said the fund had also received another $122,585 from 136 of the original contributors named on the checks and money orders given by Trie in March. Cardozo said that money had also been returned.
He said the donations had been returned or rejected "to protect the integrity of the trust, and, as such, was in the best interest of the President and Mrs. Clinton and all of those who have so generously given."
Since it was set up two years ago, the defense fund has raised about $1.2 million, according to a semiannual financial statement that it made public in August. The Clintons have $2.2 million in outstanding legal bills as of this month, Cardozo said. He said the defense fund had about $100,000.
Trie has been an active fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. Since 1994, he and his relatives have given more than $140,000 to Democratic candidates, and Daihatsu, which has no connection to the large automotive concern, has contributed $70,000 to the party. He has acknowledged that one of his companies mistakenly contributed $15,000 in foreign money to the Democratic Party.
Trie grew up in Taiwan and came to the United States in the 1970s, where he worked initially as a busboy at restaurants in the Washington area. He has since become a U.S. citizen.
Cardozo said Trie had told him he was an acquaintance of Clinton from Little Rock and might have read an article in a magazine describing how the legal bills had become such a financial burden on the Clintons.
Pub Date: 12/17/96