Clintons reportedly knew of acts to hide donations to legal fund Interviews, documents say trustees tried to prevent embarrassment

September 01, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In the six months leading up to last fall's election, the trustees of President Clinton's legal defense fund acted with the knowledge of the president and first lady to conceal the potentially embarrassing story of disciples of a Taiwan-based sect donating $639,000, according to interviews and newly available documents.

The trustees of the Presidential Legal Expense Trust used accounting measures in June 1996 that would allow them to refund the money from a Taiwan-based religious sect, Suma Ching Hai, without reporting the transactions until after November's election, the newspaper reported.

The decision to later refund the money and keep the matter under wraps followed two meetings with White House officials.

The trust -- which was established by the president and first lady June 28, 1994, to raise money for the Clintons' legal bills from Whitewater investigations and a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Corbin Jones -- is supposed to operate independent of political influence.

On May 9, 1996, six administration officials -- including political operatives Bruce R. Lindsey and Harold M. Ickes -- attended an hourlong White House briefing on the sensitive issue with three representatives of the trust.

The trust reported that the checks and money orders were delivered in a manila envelope by Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, a former Little Rock, Ark., restaurateur and longtime acquaintance of the president, but had originated from the followers of a Buddhist "cult" supreme master.

The Clintons were informed last spring about the delivery of Trie's checks, as well as the decision not to inform the public, documents and interviews show.

When the donations and refunds were finally revealed in December, six weeks after the election, the defense fund and White House contended that the trustees needed nine months to thoroughly review the contributions.

But confidential congressional records, internal defense fund papers and private meeting notes reveal a concerted effort by the White House to deal with the issue months earlier.

The documents show the depth of White House involvement and provide new details on how much top officials knew of the controversy.

White House special counsel Lanny Davis strongly denied any attempt within the White House to withhold information about Trie's activities.

"It is false to suggest that anyone in the White House decided to conceal the Trie money," Davis said. "The decision concerning public disclosure was made exclusively by the trustees, and no one in the White House could have or should have challenged that judgment."

Michael Cardozo, the executive director of the trust, also insisted in an interview that its decisions were never influenced by the White House or guided by political motivations.

"We preserved the integrity of the trust, which was our legal obligation and I don't believe there is any obligation or responsibility of the trustees to do anything more than that," said Cardozo, a former White House deputy counsel in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Cardozo also served as vice chairman of the 1993 and 1997 Clinton inaugural committees.

One effect of keeping the Trie-related donations quiet was to postpone until late in the election cycle the controversy over campaign fund-raising abuses, now the subject of Senate hearings and a Justice Department investigation.

Trie continued to raise about $400,000 in questionable donations for the Democratic National Committee last year while receiving special treatment and access at the White House.

The Clintons appointed nine trustees to manage the fund. Under the guidelines, it was to operate independently of the administration and report directly to the president and first lady through the White House counsel.

Although the private trust is not subject to federal laws governing political contributions, the Clintons imposed their own restrictions: limiting individual donations to $1,000 a year and prohibiting foreigners, corporations, labor unions, political organizations, lobbyists and federal employees from contributing.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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