Skip to comments.Competing against the Clintons for cash
Posted on 04/30/2004 1:56:36 AM PDT by JohnHuang2
If there were one luncheon Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown should not have attended, it was the one that took place at Matteo's Restaurant in Waikiki in December 1991. At the lunch were arguably the three people most directly responsible for his demise: Hawaiian wheeler-dealers Gene and Nora Lum and Michael Brown, Ron's then-26-year-old son.
Hawaii was just one stop on a 10-day Asia junket. Later, on this same trip, Ron Brown would meet the one other person of Asian origin who would most complicate his life, John Huang. At the time, Huang worked for the now-notorious Lippo Group, an Indonesia-based conglomerate owned by the ethnic Chinese Mochtar Riady and his sons, James and Stephen. According to the Thompson Committee, Huang served as "the political power that advises the Riady Family on issues and where to make contributions."
In 1991, Ron Brown had no higher goal than to get a Democrat elected president. To succeed, Brown had to find a new source of votes and, even more importantly, a new source of revenue. He knew one good place to look: the Asian-Pacific-American community. In seeking to woo Asian money foreign or domestic Brown had two primary sources of competition: the Republicans, obviously, and less obviously, Bill Clinton especially in regard to the mother lode of Asian largesse, "the Riady money."
For the Riadys and Asians in general their notion of "friendship" differs significantly from that of the West. For them, willingness to enter into a friendship is often marked by the exchange of gifts or favors. When done respectfully, such an exchange is seen as a sign of genuine courtesy and often goes under the name of Guanxi.
In 1984, the Riadys made their first investment in their new friendship with Clinton. That year, the Worthen Bank of Arkansas, then partly owned by the Riadys, lost tens of millions of dollars of Arkansas state pension funds in a disastrous investment scheme. Instead of passing the loss along to the state as they were legally entitled to, they ate the loss and saved Clinton's reputation and career.
To keep the Riady money away from Clinton and in general play, Brown had to find an opening thus, the meeting with Huang. At this stage of the game, Huang was still surveying the field and spreading his bets. On Brown's 1991 junket, Huang scheduled numerous meetings for Brown's DNC delegation. Among them, as noted on the DNC schedule, was a "DINNER ($$) HOSTED BY LIPPOGROUP [sic] (JOHN HUANG)."
As to how much money was raised and where it went, the Burton Committee made the following, mildly astonishing observation: "The DNC is unable to account for any contributions which may have been raised in conjunction with the Hong Kong trip." When the Los Angeles Times later tried to track this money, its reporters descended into an informational black hole.
The message Brown pulled from this trip to the Far East was that "commercial engagement" with the People's Republic of China should not hinge on any guaranteed improvement in human rights. Oddly, candidate Clinton seemed to be hearing no such message. On the stump, he scolded Bush repeatedly for "coddling tyrants" in Beijing and conducting "business as usual with those who murdered freedom at Tiananmen Square."
In retrospect, one has to wonder whether the Riadys understood Clinton's campaign rhetoric to be something of an inside joke. As shall be seen soon enough, they favored an open-door policy with the misunderstood gentlemen of the People's Republic a wide open door. And they were buying their way into a position of indispensable influence with the Clinton campaign.
In the spring of 1992, for instance, when Clinton was facing the critical New York primary without any money to speak of, James Riady used his influence with the Worthen Bank to arrange a $3.5 million line of credit. In mid-August 1992, Clinton and Riady took a memorable limousine ride. Although the conversation between the two has not been preserved, James Riady's subsequent actions suggest its general outlines. The Riady family poured $600,000 into the DNC and a number of the state parties in question. Clinton and Gore won five of the six, including Georgia and Ohio both squeakers. Just a little more Guanxi.
To get elected, Clinton needed votes as well as money. One problem was that the Democrats had no apparatus to reach Asian-Americans, not at least until the Lums came to the mainland to gear one up. With Ron Brown's blessing, they set up shop in a shabby Southern California warehouse and grandly christened themselves the Asia Pacific Advisery Council-Vote Group, or APAC-Vote.
Helping the Lums was John Huang. What the trio was doing and doing well was raising money. What they were not doing was accounting for any of it to anyone. An FBI informant reported seeing piles of $100 bills stashed in shopping bags in Nora Lum's back office. As a long-time Democratic volunteer breezily observed, "Of course, it was illegal money from Korea and Taiwan, anyway."
The Lums' operation climaxed with a gala awards dinner shortly before the 1992 election that bordered on the burlesque. The FBI informant even received an award as a representative of the apocryphal Lebanese American Advisory Council. As something of a highlight, candidate Bill Clinton contributed a letter, under his own signature, claiming the event would honor the APAC volunteers for their hard work on behalf of the campaign.
The only thing that removes the event from the realm of the comical is that future dealings of the Lums would lead to the death of Ron Brown. The future machinations of Huang and the Riadys, meanwhile, would sabotage American security. Otherwise, it was all quite amusing.
Tomorrow: Part 4 The appalling Vietnam scandal the media chose not to notice
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