WASHINGTON -- The extent of John Huang's access to sensitive intelligence on overseas trade while he was an official of the Department of Commerce is becoming a key focus of congressional inquiries into the international banker and heavyweight Democratic fund-raiser.
Investigators say Huang might have had access to a wealth of financial and commercial information that could benefit his former employers at the Lippo Group, a multibillion-dollar Indonesian conglomerate with interests spanning the Pacific.
With 12 days left in the presidential race, Huang has become a Republican target in alleging ethical lapses by President Clinton and the Democratic Party. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) halted Huang's fund-raising activities after admitting that he had erred in collecting contributions from a Korean firm and arranging a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in California.
At least four GOP-controlled congressional committees are investigating Huang, even as the White House and DNC keep him away from the press.
From July 1994 until early this year, Huang held a mid-level political appointment at the Commerce Department as principal deputy assistant secretary for international economic policy.
Before that, he had presided over Lippo's interests in the United States, drawing salary and severance pay in his final year with the firm that totaled nearly $900,000.
The House International Relations Committee has demanded records of intelligence to which Huang had access as well as his telephone and appointment logs and diplomatic cables.
In seeking the documents, International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman, a New York Republican, said that "questions have been raised about Mr. Huang's ties to his former employers and associates during his tenure at the department."
Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, meeting with reporters this week, said he had assigned the department's general counsel and inspector general to look into Huang's work there, which ended in January.
"Up to now, we can find not a scintilla of evidence of anything untoward," Kantor said.
Commerce officials have described Huang's role as mostly administrative. He had little influence on policy and did no work on China matters, even though he was born in China, they said. He was barred from working on anything to do with Lippo, his former employer.
He did, however, work on commerce with Taiwan, which does billions of dollars in trade with China annually and serves as a springboard for business investment on the mainland, according experts.
Huang kept such a low profile that some of his fellow political appointees at Commerce did not know who he was.
While his name was among hundreds of Asian-American job-seekers sent to government agencies by the White House after Clinton took office in 1993, Huang had high-level entree.
In April 1993, he was part of a small group that met with the president for about 20 minutes. The others were James Riady, son of Lippo patriarch Mochtar Riady, and Mark Grubmyer, a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer with Indonesian ties.
That September, he joined the president at another White House meeting, along with presidential counselor Bruce Lindsey, James Riady and Little Rock financier and lawyer C. Joseph Giroir. Once managing partner of the Rose Law Firm, where Hillary Rodham Clinton practiced, Giroir is a Riady business partner. White House spokesman Mark Fabiani said the session lasted about 20 minutes.
The Lippo Group developed close Arkansas business ties during the 1980s when it owned a stake in a large Little Rock bank called the Worthen Bank, which James Riady helped run.
Huang's unassuming presence at Commerce seemed at odds with his dynamic role in raising a reported $4 million for the DNC, according to congressional staff members who follow trade issues. It also obscures the kind of important information that someone trained in international banking, as he was, could glean from his position at Commerce.
So great is the quantity of information available to Commerce Department officials on trade and economic policy that intelligence is sometimes tailored to fit the individual needs of those at Huang's level, said Thomas J. Duesterberg, who held the position immediately above Huang's during the Bush administration.
"An official in a position of responsibility such as that would need to be aware of deliberations to form U.S. trade policy; background information on trade policy positions of other countries and specific information about opportunities for U.S. companies in foreign countries and difficulties those companies are experiencing getting access to foreign markets," Duesterberg said.
According to Commerce Department spokeswoman Anne Luzzatto, however, Huang was denied the most sensitive information provided to top officials. Like other political appointees, he had a "top secret" clearance but was not allowed to receive "code word" or so-called "special compartmented information."
But congressional staffers said that if his access was limited, it might have been hard for Huang to do his job effectively. Since his boss, the late Charles F. Meissner, traveled frequently, Huang regularly had to serve as acting assistant secretary, in charge of running the bureau.
"You can't do the job if you have only half the information," said a senior congressional investigator, adding that code word clearance probably would have been necessary for the job.
Huang's predecessor, Richard Johnston, now a consultant on Asia, said that in working on certain projects he was given access to information classified above the "top secret" level.
But Luzzatto said Huang performed merely a "custodial" role when Meissner was away. The most sensitive intelligence "was infrequently used or needed," she said.
"If there was a need to know, he would have had access in the absence of his boss," she said. "I have no reason to believe that was ever the case."
Pub Date: 10/24/96