IT WAS ENOUGH TO LEAVE A Washington Post reader baffled. On March 16, the paper ran a front-page story featuring an interview with Wang Jun, the notorious Chinese arms dealer who sipped coffee at the White House during the Clinton reelection campaign. In a conversation with Post reporter Steven Mufson, Wang answered one of the most intriguing questions of the campaign- finance scandal: How did he come to be invited to the White House? Wang said he was asked by Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, and its Washington managing partner Ernest Green, a longtime friend of President Clinton. The day after the coffee, according to the Post and other accounts, Green gave $ 50,000 to the Democratic National Committee. That led many observers -- including some investigators in Congress -- to suspect the money might actually have been a laundered contribution from Wang, given in return for access to the president.
In the Post interview, Wang suggested otherwise. He told the paper that he wasn't terribly interested in going to the White House -- it was his hosts who had set up the visit. "I couldn't say no," Wang said. And once there, he didn't find the company very interesting. "There wasn't much to talk about. Just a brief handshake with Clinton." Now, if that was the case, why would Wang have wanted to slip the president $ 50,000, using Green as cover? It didn't make sense, and based on the new information from Wang, the Post suggested that the affair was less a case of a Chinese arms dealer's trying to influence the American election than of Green's trying to use his connections to swing a deal with a top Chinese executive.
Then, just two days later, the Post ran another Wang Jun story: Wang's finance company, the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), released a statement to "clarify that Lehman Brothers had nothing to do with arranging the meeting with Mr. Clinton . . ." Instead, CITIC said, it was Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, the ambitious Little Rock restaurateur and would- be international financier, who asked that Wang be invited to the coffee. Ernest Green's name -- and the $ 50,000 contribution -- did not appear anywhere in the story.
The two accounts were confusing, to say the least. Which was it? The answer may lie with Green, whose story could change current perceptions about the Wang episode and its role in the Clinton campaign-finance scandal.
Green is widely known as a civil-rights pioneer. He was one of the "Little Rock Nine," the first students to desegregate Central High School in the 1950s. (A few years ago, the Disney Channel even made a movie about his experience, The Ernest Green Story.) He held a top job in the Labor Department during the Carter administration and spent several years in the diversity-consulting business before joining Lehman Brothers in the late 1980s. He has been a major fund-raiser for the Democratic party -- so big that his name was on the list of the party's top 10 supporters in a recently released memo from then-DNC fund-raising chief Terry McAuliffe to the White House.
According to his lawyer, in late 1995, Green -- like many other investment bankers -- was looking to make business deals in Asia. Green met Wang in the fall of that year during a business trip to Hong Kong (Green's fellow Arkansan Charlie Trie was also at the event where the two were introduced). After returning home, Green wrote Wang a letter: "I . . . feel there are many business opportunities we may pursue." (This Nov. 6, 1995, letter is now in the hands of congressional investigators.) "If your schedule will allow, I would like to extend an invitation to you to visit the USA during the month of December. . . . Please let me know at your earliest convenience if this will be possible."
Wang did not visit in December. Then on January 6, 1996, Charlie Trie wrote his own letter to Wang, saying, "I . . . feel there are many business opportunities for us to pursue together," and inviting him to visit during January -- "I would like you to meet with Lehman Brother's [sic] Managing Director, Mr. Ernest Green and my other business contacts . . ." Wang finally decided to travel to the United States, and when he applied for a visa, he included the two letters with his paperwork. The State Department granted the visa and Wang hit American shores on February 1.
There is reason to believe that it was Green's letter that made the difference. In response to questions from congressional investigators, the State Department said that Trie's letter "had no bearing on the issuance of Mr. Wang's visa"; it declined to say the same of Green's letter. Says a congressional investigator following the case, "The State Department response eliminates Charlie Trie as the person who brought Wang Jun into the country. They say the letter Trie wrote had nothing to do with [the visa], but they didn't knock down Ernie Green."
Sources close to Green don't deny that Green played a role in bringing Wang to the United States. But the question remains, Who got Wang into the White House?
Congressional investigators believe the first Post story. "Wang Jun, perhaps not familiar with Western media, lets fly with a far-ranging interview," says a congressional investigator. In the interview, Wang stated clearly that Green played a part in arranging the White House-coffee invitation. Then, the investigator speculates, Chinese officials realized that the interview might be damaging to Lehman Brothers and Green, who could be important to business ventures. "There's panic," the investigator continues, "and then the catch-up article in the Post to pin it on Charlie Trie."
But Green's lawyer denies that Green played a role in bringing Wang to the White House coffee (which Green did not attend). At this point, it seems impossible to reconcile Wang's initial account -- the one believed by congressional investigators -- and Green's position. The key piece of evidence could be the $ 50,000 contribution. Knowing its origin may be crucial to understanding Green's role in the Wang Jun affair.
Some congressional investigators strongly believe that the donation was Chinese money laundered through Green. But as of now they have no hard evidence to support that belief. All they have is (1) the fact that Green helped Wang come to this country; (2) the fact that Wang went to the White House to visit Green's friend Bill Clinton; and (3) the fact that the contribution coincided with the visit.
But those bits of evidence don't necessarily add up to money laundering. A source close to Green calls it "connecting dots without information." This, according to the source, is Green's account of what happened:
In November 1995, at a Washington, D.C., fund-raiser, Green made a commitment to make a large contribution to the party. He planned to actually deliver the money in early 1996, when he got his end-of-year bonus from Lehman Brothers. He received the bonus -- which was well into six figures -- on January 31. He deposited the Lehman Brothers check in the bank, and it cleared on February 6. That morning, as planned, Green's wife Phyllis, using the couple's joint account, wrote the $ 50,000 check to the DNC. Green hand- delivered the check to a party official with whom he had scheduled a breakfast. The source says Green did not know that Wang planned to attend the coffee, which was to be held at 4:45 in the afternoon. The source says that Green and Wang held a business meeting in Lehman Brothers offices earlier in the day and that it was then that Green learned Wang would be going to the White House.
Neither Green nor his wife had ever made such a large contribution (his status as a top 10 party supporter came from his fund-raising efforts, not his contributions). But the source says Green wanted to play an even larger role in the Democratic party than he had in previous years, and that he believed the contribution would be part of that role.
On the main issue, the source is direct: "It was [the Greens'] money. Simple. There was no reimbursement. It was something they wanted to do" -- besides which, the source says, Green has documents to support his version of events.
Even if Green's account checks out, there is plenty of room for skepticism. Just what was Green's relationship with Charlie Trie? Did Green know of any other contacts between Wang Jun and the White House? Did Green really think he had to become a big contributor to get ahead in the DNC, given his status in the party?
The answers could give us a better understanding of the Wang Jun episode. This could be a case of a legitimate contribution. Or -- like so many other contributions to the Democratic party -- it may not.
Byron York is an investigative writer for the American Spectator.