Latest tapes show Clinton entertaining donors White House maintains materials fail to show violation of finance laws

October 16, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a second batch of videotapes released yesterday, President Clinton is shown entertaining wealthy donors and controversial Democratic fund-raisers at receptions and meals held in swank hotel dining rooms, historic White House rooms -- and occasionally even the Oval Office.

White House officials, who reviewed between 90 and 100 hours of videotapes before turning them over to the Justice Department and congressional investigators, insisted that they failed to show the president violating any campaign finance laws and, in fact, broke no new ground.

"These events, all of them, including the ones in the White House, confirm what we have always said: These events were legal, and they were appropriate," said White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis.

Privately, however, aides acknowledged that the videotapes of Clinton glad-handing such controversial figures as John Huang and Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie -- and the tapes' airing on network television -- might jar the sensibilities of Americans who have only casually followed this complicated controversy.

Clinton's critics made the same point. "A picture is worth a thousand words," said Larry Klayman, head of Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group.

Only 28 of the more than 150 events on the tapes take place in the White House, but even some of those away from the White House contain material his aides would prefer never come to light.

An example of an embarrassing, though not illegal, episode took place at a May 13, 1996, Democratic National Committee dinner at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel in Washington, where Clinton spoke to a group of Asian-American donors. "It will be 20 years since I had my first meal with Charlie Trie," Clinton says. "At the time, neither of us could afford a ticket to this dinner."

This comment drew laughter from the crowd; yesterday it made White House lawyers wince. Trie, an immigrant who once owned a small Chinese restaurant in Little Rock, Ark., was responsible for turning over hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party and to Clinton's legal defense fund. Much of that money was returned -- or rejected outright -- because of suspicions Trie was being used as a conduit by foreign sources. He has since left the country and dodged investigators.

One videotape with potentially more serious implications came a week later at a May 21, 1996, fund-raising lunch.

In it, the president thanks a group of big givers for their contributions, then explains what their money had been used for -- a national advertising campaign lauding Clinton's record and criticizing Republicans.

To GOP leaders -- as well as nonpartisan reform groups -- that ad campaign constituted an outright violation of laws regarding the ways large donations can be used. The rules state that ads financed by such sources be educational in nature and about issues -- and cannot advocate one candidate over another.

"You have helped us to do this with your contributions," Clinton is shown telling the group. "Many of you have given very generously, and I thank you. The fact that we've been able to finance this long-running, constant television campaign has been central to the position I now hold in the polls."

Other snippets certain to provide critics with ammunition include:

* The image of Clinton hugging and singing the praises of Huang, the Taiwan-born businessman whose fund-raising efforts have caused the DNC so much grief. Almost $3 million raised by Huang and Trie has been returned.

"I have known John Huang for a very long time, and when he told me that this was going to come off, I doubted him," Clinton said at a Feb. 19, 1996, Asian-American fund-raising dinner. "But I should have known, he has never told me anything that didn't happen."

Huang has cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to be interviewed by investigators.

* A March 11, 1995, radio address in the Oval Office attended by Southern California businessman Johnny Chung and six friends, most of whom the White House concedes were Chinese government officials. Clinton hugs Chung and gives far more time to his guests than to anyone else. Clinton also poses for pictures with them and accepts a traditional Chinese gift, a carved rock that symbolizes longevity.

Chung, who contributed $50,000 to the Democrats, has since compared the White House operation to a subway: One pays money to be admitted. White House officials say that there was no quid-pro-quo and that none of Chung's guests received their photographs.

* Another appearance by Huang and his former patron, wealthy Indonesian businessman James Riady, at a radio address in 1994 in which Clinton drapes his arm around Huang and appears to have an earnest but unintelligible conversation with Riady.

A tape of Terence McAuliffe, a top DNC fund-raiser, telling donors in May 1993 that a White House reception was their reward for contributing to an earlier fund-raiser in a hotel in Little Rock that ended up being canceled.

"We're glad we did not ask for our checks back because, no offense to Little Rock, but this sure beats the Little Rock Excelsior," McAuliffe says.

* A June 3, 1996, fund-raiser for Greek-Americans, where an unidentified guest lobbies the president for an oil pipeline across Bulgaria. Clinton took some notes but said nothing.

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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