The Blog


11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Come February, the tongues of congressmen will be folding themselves around such names as Arief Wiriadinata, Jim Riady, Grigory Loutchansky, Samir Danou, Jorge Cabrera, George Psaltis, and Tai-Ying. These are, of course, the donors of the shady contributions to the Clinton campaign that have been the focus of daily revelations for a month and more. The Republican Congress is going to convene hearings on the matter to find out what happened and what exactly American officials -- John Huang, Mark Grobmyer, Mark Middleton, and the late commerce secretary, Ron Brown -- did to solicit the money.

President Clinton, in the spirit of nonpartisan comity, is ready to help. The president has expressed his high hopes that there will finally be movement toward far-reaching campaign-finance reform. The White House hopes to drum up public distaste for the "politics of personal destruction" and to browbeat zealous House investigators into relinquishing the reins to a bipartisan campaign-finance-reform committee.

Where these foreign donations are concerned, however, the campaign-finance system is not the issue. The issue is what laws were broken, and by whom, and just how serious the violations were. It already appears certain that foreign businessmen have sought to buy influence over U.S. policy -- specifically, foreign policy, human-rights policy, drug policy, and trade policy as made in the White House. We already know that attempts to shift policy have been made: An emigre Middle Eastern businessman named Samir Danou raised just under $ 500,000 at a Michigan fund-raiser attended by the president. Those present were given private audiences with Clinton, and the explicit goal of the fund-raiser was to influence U.S. policy on Iraq -- "to open sanctions," according to Danou's daughter. She added that Clinton " promised" to help lift the embargo.

Democrats have sought to muddle the procedural issue of campaign finance and the ethical, even criminal, issue of outright bribery. But the two are not the same, and they know it. The campaign-finance system was created in the wake of Watergate to make sure that the financial excesses of Nixon's reelection effort were never repeated Such excesses were legal at the time, but they were so sleazy they inspired outrage. Bribing American officials, and the pursuit of bribes by American officials, have been illegal since the nation's founding.

The American campaign-finance system is now so full of loopholes that practically no excess or prevarication is punishable You really have to go out of your way to commit an actionable offense, and that's what former Commerce official John Huang did while working at the Democratic National Committee. A Korean company gave him $ 250,000 through a nonexistent U.S. subsidiary Cash contributions from anonymous donors were laundered through a fundraiser at a Buddhist temple in California. Contributions have been made under false names, and from false addresses (like DNC headquarters).

An indication that there's something larger than electoral law being violated is that the DNC has cooperated with investigators only under judicial duress. It filed its final election donor report eight days late, just minutes before a court was to rule on its conduct. Huang, in constant contact with his lawyer and relying (by his own account) on Hillary Clinton for emotional support, remained a fugitive from justice until U.S. marshals tracked him down to appear for a court suit brought by the public-interest group Judicial Watch.

David Harris, formerly a senior official of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told Newsday of his alarm over Huang's fund-raising -- and over the fact that Huang was given a top-secret security clearance even before taking a job in the Commerce Department. Harris said that Lippo Bank, Huang's former employer, was close to the Chinese intelligence service in Beijing, and added: "I have seen no evidence of spying. . . . But it is inconceivable to me that someone would get a position of that sort without a full check. . . . This type of thing sends chills through the body of any intelligence officer." This, in turns, raises the prospect of economic espionage inside the Clinton administration.

Now, that dwarfs campaign-finance reform in importance. And yet the media, which have been aggressive in pursuit of the foreign-donations story, persist in portraying Huang's activities as common to both parties Newsweek's October 28 cover was typical: The cover line reads "Candidates for Sale," next to pictures of both Clinton and Dole. The New York Times has also frequently paired the two candidates' fund-raising operations, accusing Bob Dole of hypocrisy for his attacks on Clinton's fund-raising. Why? Because Dole himself, the Times pointed out, engaged in fund-raising practices that would be illegal if the reforms he was championing actually passed, a breathtaking piece of sophistry that confused an actual tort with a hypothetical one.

The key issue in the Huang case involves the sale of access to the White House, something Dole is absolved of, since he didn't, and never will, live in the White House. Republicans have not occupied, and will not occupy, the White House for quite some time. The Huang scandal is not bipartisan; it is about the Clinton administration and the Clinton-run DNC, and only about them.

By Christopher Caldwell