Campaign finance hearings fail to prove influence of Chinese Committee chair began proceedings by claiming presidential race affected


WASHINGTON -- On the first day of the Senate hearings on campaign finance practices, Sen. Fred Thompson, the chairman of the investigating committee, dropped a bombshell.

"High-level Chinese government officials crafted a plan to increase China's influence over the U.S. political process," the Tennessee Republican declared in his opening statement.

"Our investigations," he added, "suggest that it affected the 1996 presidential race."

Last week, Thompson's committee wrapped up its examination of illegal foreign political contributions and prepared to move on to other topics.

The five weeks of hearings have included copious examples of shady fund-raising practices and many instances of money from abroad being slipped into U.S. campaigns last year.

But the hearings have not produced a shred of public evidence to substantiate Thompson's charge of Chinese influence.

Thompson has never backed down from his opening statement.

He has been unable to document the extent of Chinese influence, he suggested at a news conference last month, because so many important witnesses have refused to appear at the hearings and because the evidence that exists is classified and cannot be made public.

People should not expect every charge to be bolstered by a signed confession or a smoking gun, Thompson said.

"This is a congressional inquiry," he said in Thursday's session of his committee, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

"It is not a trial. We do not have a standard of guilt either in terms of criminal purposes beyond a reasonable doubt or a civil trial, where the preponderance of evidence is the standard."

The purpose of his investigation, he continued, is "just simply laying the facts on the table -- the good, the bad, the indifferent -- and if there is a jury here, it is the jury of the American people who ultimately decide the significance of this and what the true ++ facts are so that there can be some accountability."

Thompson has a point that his hearings have been hampered by the refusal of the most important witnesses to cooperate.

Many, including John Huang and Maria Hsia, have asserted their Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.

Huang was the Democratic National Committee official in charge of fund raising among Asian-Americans in the campaign. Hsia first suggested that worshipers at a Buddhist temple donate money to the Democrats in connection with Vice President Al Gore's visit to the temple.

Others, like Yah Lin Trie, who raised and laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars for the party in illegal contributions from abroad, and members of the Riady family of Indonesia, longtime financial backers of President Clinton, have left the United States and are outside the reach of the committee's subpoenas.

But these people either have no relationship with the Chinese government or their connection is so slight that there is little reason to believe that the donations they were involved with came from Beijing.

As for the classified material, senators from both parties who have reviewed this evidence have concluded that the Chinese probably did have a plan to become involved in U.S. politics and might have actually tried to carry out the plan in some congressional races.

But there is no evidence, said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, expressing the unanimous view of Democratic members of the investigating committee, "that it was aimed at the presidential race or that it affected the presidential race."

What the evidence produced by the committee did prove was that in their frenzy to raise money last year, Democratic agents, especially Huang and Trie, raised and laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal donations from abroad.

The source of the money was overseas commercial interests who had been convinced by Huang and Trie that they could buy influence by donating money.

No evidence was submitted that Clinton or Gore knew of these donations.

But Huang and Trie had an unusual amount of access to the White House.

So did Johnny Chung, a California businessman who gave $50,000 to a presidential assistant inside the White House. The source of the money might have been foreigners.

Still, the Republicans were unable to find any suggestion that the government's foreign policy was altered because of a campaign contribution.

All the money the Democrats have been able to identify as having come illegally from abroad -- $1.6 million, according to the Senate committee's accounting -- has been returned.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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