WASHINGTON -- The Asian-American businessman who brought $600,000 in irregular donations to President Clinton's legal defense fund was a guest Friday at a White House dinner party at which he spoke with Clinton, aides said yesterday.
Mike McCurry, the president's spokesman, told reporters that Charles Yah Lin Trie, a businessman who is a Clinton acquaintance from Arkansas, was one of the 250 guests and that Clinton had a "very brief" discussion with him in a receiving line. McCurry said he did not know what they discussed.
"The president told me he had a very brief conversation with him that was personal in nature and that I believe was the extent of the conversation," McCurry said. "But he didn't relay it in any greater detail."
On Monday, officials in charge of the private trust that is raising money to defray the Clintons' personal legal bills said that Trie showed up last March at the trust offices with two manila envelopes stuffed with checks totaling $460,000 -- half the sum the trust had raised to that point.
Despite the size of the contribution, Trie sought to reassure the trust's executive director, Michael H. Cardozo, that the checks met the criteria established by the trust: a limit of $1,000 per person and a ban on donations by foreigners and federal employees.
But Cardozo said $70,000 of the money was rejected on the spot because it appeared to come from corporations. Additional suspicions remained about the rest of the money, Cardozo said. Many of the checks appeared to be in the same handwriting, and others were money orders with sequential serial numbers from people living in different cities.
In April, as trust officials considered what to do with the money, Trie returned with an additional $179,000. It was rejected out of hand. Meanwhile, a private investigator hired by the trust discovered that most of Trie's money had been raised at meetings of a Taiwanese-based Buddhist organization that critics have said functions as a cult. In June, the trust decided to refund all the money brought in by Trie.
Yesterday, neither Clinton nor McCurry would criticize Trie for his actions. Nor could they explain why Trie had been invited to the White House three days before the trust went public with this account.
"The guest list for that evening's affair was put together by the Democratic National Committee," McCurry said. "My understanding is that Mr. Trie was there shortly; he may not have stayed for dinner."
Not until the questionable donations were delivered last March, Clinton said yesterday, did he know that Trie had been raising money for the legal defense. Trie, who once owned a Little Rock restaurant where Clinton used to eat when he was governor, is now an international business consultant with an apartment in the Watergate Hotel in Washington.
L Critics weighed in yesterday with expressions of skepticism.
"The recent revelation that the trust has been used by Arkansas/Asian friends of the Clintons to try to pump monies into their account comes as no surprise," said Larry Klayman, general counsel of the conservative group Judicial Watch. Klayman called yesterday for a congressional investigation into the trust.
Among the questions are:
Was Trie working in concert with anyone in the White House or in the Clinton-Gore campaign when he bundled these contributions together?
What is the exact nature of the relationship between the president and Trie?
Why did the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore campaign continue to accept money from Trie -- some of it has since been returned -- despite being alerted in April about Trie's fund-raising practices? Those who were told directly included Hillary Rodham Clinton and Harold Ickes, a deputy White House chief of staff. McCurry added yesterday that Clinton himself was told immediately as well.
Last night, Lanny Davis, a special White House counsel, said no one from the White House or from the campaign had been working with Trie. "He just came into the office without consulting anyone in the White House about it," Davis said.
In defense of the trust's decision to keep the matter under wraps, one White House official characterized the trust as a private organization of do-gooders helping the president -- and that its officers felt no compunction about keeping quiet about a donation they had turned down.
"Of course, this was before the October days of DNC fund-raising excesses," one official said. "It was also before NBC [News] began calling the trust and asking questions."
As for the relationship between Trie and Clinton, Cardozo says Mrs. Clinton didn't remember him at first, then recalled that her husband frequented Trie's restaurant when he was governor.
Clinton himself, asked by reporters yesterday whether he was "close friends" with Trie, replied: "I've known him a long time. I knew him when he and his family came over and started a little restaurant about a mile from my home 20 years ago. And I saw them start with nothing and build up their family enterprise. They've worked very hard in this country, and they've done well."
For his part, Ickes told the White House counsel's office yesterday that he had never heard of Trie back in April -- and had no particular reason to be alarmed by what he was told.
White House officials portrayed this round of questionable fund-raising tactics as an example of the system working.
"I was aware of the decision to return the money," Clinton said. "And I think in all these fund-raising endeavors, the rules should be that all the checks should be checked to make sure that not only the fact but any, even, appearance of impropriety should be removed.
"That's what our campaign did, and as the Democratic Party's people have said, that's what they should have done. But the campaign did it, the Legal Defense Fund did it, and I think it was handled appropriately."
Pub Date: 12/18/96