Gavel To Gavel

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Gavel To Gavel: Fund-Raising Hearings

Investigators Told Not To Probe Trie

Tempers flare after investigator acknowledges collecting information on Sen. Nickles, and a window into money from a Buddhist sect

By R. Morris Barrett/AllPolitics


WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, July 31) -- Two investigators told senators probing campaign fund-raising that they were instructed by officials at President Bill Clinton's legal defense fund to investigate suspicious contributions, but not the man who delivered them.

"I am certain we were told not to contact Charlie Trie, we were to start with finding out who he was, what his background was, starting with the public database," Terry Lenzner, head of Investigative Group International (IGI), told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Lenzner's firm was retained by the Presidential Legal Trust, a fund set up to help the Clintons defray their mounting legal bills, after Trie, a longtime Arkansas associate of the president's, delivered two batches of checks and money orders totaling more than $600,000. Many of the donations seemed suspect -- some bearing misspellings, some money orders consecutively numbered -- and all were later returned.

Later it emerged that most of the money came from followers of a Buddhist sect. Some $70,000 was wired from Asian banks to cover the funds. Lawmakers heard testimony about that Thursday as well.


Republicans have focused on why the Democratic National Committee, where Trie also worked as a fund-raiser, was never alerted to his suspicious practices. More than $220,000 in donations that Trie made to the DNC were returned, and investigators suspect the funds were laundered from abroad.

Appearing with senior IGI investigator Loren Berger, Lenzner acknowledged interviewing Trie would have been helpful.

"We agreed when you testified at your deposition that it was your view as a seasoned and outstanding investigator that Mr. Trie certainly could have shed some light on the whole process of these contributions had he been talked to, right?" Majority Counsel Michael Madigan asked Lenzner.

"Certainly he had the potential to do so, Mr. Madigan," Lenzner replied.

However, Lenzner agreed with the committee's minority lawyer who noted that since Trie had not made a contribution himself, Trie did not need to be interviewed, since the scope of Lenzner's investigation was limited to looking into the source of the contributions.

That investigation, budgeted at $5,000, Berger and Lenzner testified, relied mostly on telephone interviews and an "exhaustive" search of more than 140 databases.

Berger, the lead investigator on IGI's contract, said her principal conclusion was that many of the individuals who had made contributions "did not have the economic wherewithal to make $1,000 contributions." And she noted many of the money orders seemed suspect since they had similar handwriting.

Madigan also reviewed Berger's deposition, where she suggested the defense fund had tried to avoid disclosing the suspect donations, by suggesting the funds be "re-contributed." Calling it a "political maneuver" in her deposition, Berger had suggested the idea came "because the next financial disclosure would fall after the November election and thereby elude any pre-election controversy."

"That was my personal opinion," Berger confirmed today.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter noted that the same day Trie delivered the bag of contributions to the legal fund, he faxed a letter to the White House expressing concern over U.S. policy towards Taiwan. Noting the president's signature was on a letter responding to Trie, Specter raised the possibility Trie expected something in return for his donations.

Hearings take a tumultuous turn

Today's hearing took an unexpected and stormy turn when senators seized upon two revelations provided by Lenzner.

The investigator told senators he had done some work on behalf of an Oklahoma Indian tribe, which, in return for a $107,000 contribution, had been promised help from the Democratic National Committee in securing new lands from the federal government. The DNC later returned the funds and denied there was any quid pro quo.


Sen. Don Nickles, a Republican member of the committee from Oklahoma, had opposed the land transfer, and Lenzner acknowledged the tribe had contacted him about possibly investigating Nickles, and whether his opposition stemmed from corporate interests. Lenzner admitted he collected information, like Nickles' wife's maiden name and data on a company owned by Nickles.

Nickles made it clear he was not pleased.

"You know I don't really mind you messing with me, but I do mind you messing with my family," an angry Nickles told the private eye.

"You're quite willing to investigate and interview people that may be knowledgeable of my background, but you weren't willing to investigate or to personally interview Mr. Trie who brought in almost half a million dollars in a bunch of checks that were certainly circumspect," Nickles said.

Saying he had only been conducting routine "due diligence," Lenzner defended his actions as "nothing nefarious" and what the press "does ... all the time."

Nickles, however, was supported even by some of the committee's Democratic members.

"There is a line to be drawn here. We should all draw it together in terms of personal intrusion of our loved ones," Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said.

Where the money came from

After Lenzner and Berger, Senate investigators questioned Zhi Hua Dong, a Columbia University computer systems analyst and the New York contact for a Buddhist sect led by Master Suma Ching Hai. Most of the donations brought in to the Clintons' defense fund by Charlie Trie came from members of the sect.

Zhi Hua Dong confirmed that he had picked up Trie and the master from a New York airport the day before a March 1996 meeting where the master had strongly urged a group of American citizens to contribute to the fund. That was the first time he had met Trie, he said.

"We were just trying to help a person in need, just like help homeless people or help disaster victims," Zhi Hua Dong said, explaining it was consistent with the sect's religious principles. He offered no other reason why the master was interested in helping the president.

He said he had learned only a few days before the event that the master would encourage her followers to give to the legal fund. Zhi Hua Dong said he had brought about $70,000 worth of money orders to the meeting, bought with his money and contributions from several friends.

At the meeting, on March 16, the American citizens were asked to assemble in a separate room, and then were asked for contributions. Some wrote checks on the spot; others signed the money orders Zhi Hua Dong brought. Some attendees, he noted, were offended by the master's vehemence that they make contributions.

Later that night, Zhi Hua Dong, Trie and the master counted the donations, which totaled some $400,000, he estimated, in the hotel suite. The master told him to contact the sect's Taiwanese headquarters if he had any trouble being reimbursed for the money orders. He did just that, he confirmed, and subsequently received wire transfers totaling about $70,000 from banks in Taiwan, Cambodia and Los Angeles, where the sect has affiliates.

In May 1996, Zhi Hua Dong recalled, he met Trie again at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, where Trie complained that the legal trust was returning the money. Zhi Hua Dong said until then he had believed Trie was employed by the legal fund.

Today's hearing completed the first month of the committee's fund-raising probe, chaired by Tennessee GOP Sen. Fred Thompson. There is some speculation Thompson will hold a week of hearings some time in August. Also, sources said former presidential advisor Dick Morris is expected to testify.

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