SOMETHING IMPORTANT DID HAPPEN in the Senate hearings last week on the Clinton campaignfinance scandals. It just takes some explaining. A few months ago, I wrote a short piece for THE WEEKLY STANDARD on a suspicious $ 50,000 donation made to the Democratic party by Ernest Green, a longtime friend of Bill Clinton ("Ernest Green, Donor," March 31, 1997). That $ 50,000 gift in February 1996 coincided with the White House visit of Chinese arms dealer Wang Jun. Wang Jun was in Washington as the guest of Green and the investment bank Lehman Brothers, where Green is a top executive.
Reports of Wang's presence at the fund-raising "coffee" pushed the campaign- finance scandal to a new level. Press accounts suggested Green pulled strings to get Wang into the White House and then paid for the high-level access with a check for $ 50,000. Green did not answer the allegations until late March, when his lawyer, Robert Washington, spoke to me.
Washington insisted that the $ 50,000 had nothing to do with Wang's visit to the White House. As a matter of fact, the lawyer said, Green did not even know Wang planned to attend the coffee. Washington said Green donated the money simply because he wanted to become a high-level player in Democratic politics and felt that a large contribution was a way to reach that status. And the $ 50,000, Washington added, was entirely Green's own money.
Washington said Green received a 1995 year-end bonus check from Lehman Brothers that was well into six figures -- more than enough for Green to make the $ 50,000 donation. Green hand-delivered the check -- actually given in the name of his wife Phyllis -- to a DNC official on the morning of February 6, 1996. Later that morning, Green had a business meeting with Wang at the Lehman Brothers offices; it was only then, Washington said, that Green learned of Wang's plans to attend the White House coffee later in the afternoon. Washington stressed that Green played no role in getting Wang into the White House coffee. "Absolutely not," Washington told me. "It was Charlie Trie."
Fast-forward to last Tuesday, the first day of testimony in the campaign- finance hearings. Sen. Arlen Specter asked former DNC finance director Richard Sullivan what he knew about Wang's White House visit. "Senator, I'm not going to deny it was a mistake," Sullivan said, but "it was in the context of something that was important to Ernie and Charlie." Meaning Ernie Green and Charlie Trie.
Specter challenged the witness: Shouldn't Wang's visit, coupled with Green's $ 50,000 donation, create "questions which ought to leap up at you without any analysis or any real thought?" Sullivan's answer showed that Specter's question was beside the point. "Ernie had this guy in town doing business," he said. "Ernie had been a longtime supporter. And it was purely as a favor to Ernie."
And what about the $ 50,000 itself?. Specter told the committee that, in addition to the year-end bonus Green had received from his employer, "later in the month" Green "got a supplemental bonus of $ 50,000 from Lehman Brothers." (Specter later clarified the numbers: The original bonus was $ 114, 000, the additional bonus $ 54,000.)
"That's flat-out wrong," Washington told me when asked about the allegations. Washington says Green did indeed receive a supplemental bonus, but it was not $ 54,000; it was $ 90,000. And Washington says Green didn't get it in February 1996, as Specter said; he got it in April 1996, two months after making the big contribution to the Democrats. There was no connection between Green's gift and the supplemental bonus, Washington says, and he has given the committee documents to prove it.
But Green himself told committee investigators he received a second bonus sometime toward the end of February, according to Senate sources. They also say Washington indicated the same to them. And then the sources produced a significant piece of evidence: a copy of a DNC financial document that lists Green's $ 50,000 contribution under the heading "POTUS Coffee 2/6/96." POTUS stands for "President of the United States."
The case should serve as a lesson for all who are inclined to dismiss the hearings as a partisan show -- and evaluate them on the basis of which side has produced the best soundbites. The same week THE WEEKLY STANDARD story appeared, Thompson's committee subpoenaed both Green and Lehman Brothers. The evidence they have gathered demonstrates how the Senate investigation is producing real information. And after Washington's earlier statements to the press -- incomplete at best -- it will be interesting to hear his answers when investigators with subpoena power ask questions about stories we thought we already knew.
Byron York is an investigative writer with The American Spectator.