Oops! More money has to be returned, this time for the Clintons' legal defense

December 18, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- On the face of it, the trustees of President Clinton's legal defense fund acted properly when they decided last spring to return $640,000 in contributions that appeared questionable. But the episode illustrates the sensitivity of the whole process.

The problem arises because the rejected money for the Clinton fund was delivered by Charles Yah Lin Trie, an old friend of the president from Little Rock whose contributions to the Democratic National Committee were returned this fall because the sources of some of the money seemed questionable.

What the press now calls ''the Asian connection'' -- although Mr. Trie is a U.S. citizen -- has touched the Clintons' legal fund as well as the Democratic Party political contributions. The question that arises is whether there were connections in the fund-raising. Did someone suggest to Mr. Trie that there were different ways he could help his old friend President Clinton?

The legal-defense fund was to have been kept far enough removed from the president that no one would imagine his $1,000 contribution could buy either access or influence. Indeed, the limits have been strict enough that the fund has raised only $100,000 in the last six months, far short of the Clintons' needs TC to meet the huge bills for lawyers handling everything from Whitewater to Paula Jones.

The same question lies at the heart of the controversy over the party contributions -- did those who provided huge amounts of ''soft money'' for the campaign gain a special opportunity to influence national policy? Was there a quid pro quo?

So far there is no evidence of that. Some of the major contributors did write to the White House and meet with the president to push their own ideas on policy. But, as Mr. Clinton himself has noted, there is nothing inherently wrong with any citizen expressing his ideas to elected officials. And there is no reason to believe that the president allowed policy decisions to be skewed by political money.

Nonetheless, several facets of this case are intriguing. One is simply the fact that so much money was involved. According to (( Michael H. Cardozo, the lawyer who acts as executive director of the Presidential Legal Expense Trust, Mr. Trie's $640,000 was delivered in the form of several hundred checks and money orders for $1,000 or less, many of which seemed to come from the same source and raised obvious questions about whether the rules were being circumvented.

A Buddhist connection

A second exotic aspect of the case was the fact that much of the money was raised through a Buddhist religious organization based in Taiwan and led by Ching Hai, leader of a fast-growing cult with ''meditation centers'' all over the world.

This is not the same Buddhist organization whose temple in Los Angeles was used for a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser attended by Vice President Gore earlier this year. But, justifiably or not, it wouldn't be surprising if many eyebrows were raised at still another ''Buddhist connection'' in political fund-raising.

The core of the problem for the Clintons is that there is no established precedent for paying the legal bills of a president under investigation from so many quarters. There have been suggestions that the lawyers should be doing this work pro bono, but that would amount to an in-kind contribution that would raise other vexing questions. These are, after all, the kind of lawyers who regularly bill $400 to $500 an hour, which explains why the Clintons are $2.5 million behind right now.

An alternative might have been for the Clintons to delay payment their legal bills until the president leaves office and can cash in on book advances and lecture fees in the manner of some other recent presidents. But that would hardly be an improvement; nobody wants a president perpetually in hock.

Instead, the best the legal defense fund can do is what it apparently has been doing and what the party committee started doing too late. ''The rule,'' said Mr. Clinton, ''should be that all checks should be checked.''

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/18/96

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