Democratic donor gives new information on China ties

Chung to testify before House reform committee

May 07, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Former Democratic donor Johnny Chung has provided new information to congressional investigators about his dealings with top Chinese intelligence officials, including claims that other politically connected figures were enlisted to bolster China's interests in the United States.

Those claims, along with additional details about Chung's previously disclosed dealings with the chief of China's military intelligence, are expected to be aired next week when Chung is scheduled to testify publicly for the first time before the House Committee on Government Reform.

Chung's account, gathered from a series of recent interviews with the Los Angeles Times, also is expected to shed new light on a possible China strategy to build relations with individuals who had special access to the White House and U.S. political leaders.

At the same time, Chung's public testimony could inflame already bitter partisan debate over long-standing Republican allegations of a China plan to influence the U.S. election process.

For more than two years, Justice Department and congressional investigators have sought to determine whether the Chinese government directed secret campaign contributions to U.S. election campaigns to enhance Beijing's access to influential leaders, technology and information. Such allegations have generated bitter partisan debate, with Republicans alleging that China sought to influence the 1996 U.S. elections.

Now, Chung is poised to become the first prominent figure in the 1996 campaign finance scandal with ties to China to testify publicly before Congress.

"One of the serious problems we've had is that most of the key witnesses have refused to testify," Government Reform Chairman Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, said yesterday. "We've had 121 people take the Fifth [Amendment] or flee the country. I'm glad we are finally going to have the opportunity to hear from one of the central figures."

Chung was subpoenaed by the House panel after an April 4 article by the Los Angeles Times reported that Chung had told federal investigators that Ji Shengde, the head of China's military intelligence, had given the Torrance, Calif., businessman $300,000 to subsidize campaign donations to support Clinton. Records show that Chung donated a total of $35,000 to the Democratic National Committee in September 1996; the remainder was transferred into Chung's California bank account and it is not known how the money was spent.

Between 1994 and 1996, Chung contributed a total of $366,000 to the DNC and visited the White House about 50 times, often with Chinese associates in tow. He pleaded guilty last year to election law and tax violations and has been cooperating with the Justice Department's campaign finance investigation arising from the 1996 election.

White House and DNC officials said they were unaware of the origin of Chung's funds at the time he contributed them. All of the money was subsequently returned.

In two scheduled days of testimony, Chung, 44, also is expected to detail the history of his passage from obscure fax business entrepreneur to national symbol for the campaign finance scandal. He told the Times he was a largely unwitting player in the geopolitical drama.

"I am Forrest Gump," he said, referring to the fictional character who finds himself in unlikely encounters with historic figures.

Chung says he met Ji at a restaurant in Hong Kong where he was introduced as "a good friend of President Clinton" by Liu Chaoying, the daughter of China's retired top general and a vice president of China Aerospace Corp.

Ji, who used the false name "Xu" for their first meeting, told Chung: "We like your president. I will give you 300,000 U.S. dollars. You can give it to the president and the Democratic Party. We hope he will be re-elected," Chung recalled.

Later, in front of Chung, Ji informed Liu that he would wire $300,000 to her and she was to transfer it to Chung. Chung said that Ji also told Liu that he required a receipt "in order for me to report [the expenditure] to the [intelligence] agency."

According to Chung, he told Liu, with whom he had an independent business relationship, that he objected to playing the role of a conduit.

"She said, `Take it. It makes no sense to spend your own money. Use ours,' " Chung recalled. She said it would be "good for China."

And, in an apparent effort to further reassure Chung, Liu said, "We've done this before." According to Chung, Liu cited others with American political ties who she said also received support from China.

Chung said that Liu told him that China steered business to a Hong Kong aerospace dealer with controversial links to the Republican Party. She also said that "we gave a Singapore group $500,000" intended for former Clinton aide and Arkansas attorney Mark E. Middleton "to do good things for China." Chung testified before the grand jury that Liu also mentioned the involvement of a "Mr. Wong."

According to Chung, Liu also acknowledged a relationship with Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, the former Arkansas restaurateur and longtime Clinton friend.

Intriguing to investigators is likely to be Chung's account of a February 1996 car ride with a Beijing banker who asked Chung if he knew that Trie "asked my government for $1 million to help the president and the Democrats?" A surprised Chung said that the banker offered no further information.

Trie's attorney could not be reached for comment.

Pub Date: 5/07/99

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