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The Price of Access

May 11, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And speaking of China as we were, there was a House hearing today about campaign financing and the alleged involvement of China in the ’96 Clinton-Gore effort. Kwame Holman reports on that.

REP. DAN BURTON: Today we have a rare thing: we have a cooperative witness.

KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the course of a two-year investigation of fundraising abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, was unable to produce a major witness willing to testify publicly. But today he had Johnny Chung. Chung is one of the key figures in allegations the Chinese government tried to influence the 1996 presidential election by contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to President Clinton’s campaign.

REP. DAN BURTON: What has Mr. Chung told us? He’s told us that General Ji Shengde, the head of Military Intelligence for the People’s Liberation Army, gave him $300,000. General Ji would be the equivalent, as I said, of our CIA. It was wired to him through Lt. Colonel Liu Chao Ying of China Aerospace, whose father was the head of the People’s Liberation Army at one time, and a member of the hierarchy in the Chinese government.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last year, Johnny Chung pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign and to the campaign of Democratic Senator John Kerry. But at the start of his testimony today, Chung told committee members he was not part of any grand conspiracy.

JOHNNY CHUNG: At the outset, I must make the statement and observation that I believe my testimony here today will probably disappoint a lot of people. Contrary to what some people think, I have never acted as an agent for the Chinese government. I have never sought to do anything that might facilitate any sinister attempt to undermine the interests of my country, the United States, which I love. Far from it. I am a first generation immigrant, a U.S. citizen who, like your forefathers, do not speak English as good as my children and my wife do. But I am as loyal to my country as any of you.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chung was a major Democratic donor, contributing $360,000 to the party and its candidates from 1994 to ’96. Records show he visited the White House 50 times in that period — often with Chinese citizens who were clients of his consulting business.

JOHNNY CHUNG: These people wanted me to do everything from assisting them in getting a visa to enter this country to escorting them around the country, providing interpreter service, paying their expenses and making introductions to both business and government contacts.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chung also explained the importance of getting the President and Mrs. Clinton to pose for pictures with his clients.

JOHNNY CHUNG: For people who do business in China pictures are worth their “weight in gold.” Just like many American companies, such as Coca Cola or Pepsi, will spend millions to advertise in the Super Bowl game, these business people and their companies treasure photographs with important people because in China, such photographs project a great sense of importance and reflect the degree of your importance. As a consequence, they were willing to provide me significant sums of money to help them get these photos.

KWAME HOLMAN: Then in painstaking detail Chung described a 1996 meeting in China with a businesswoman Liu Chao Ying and a man he later learned was the head of Chinese military intelligence, General Ji.

JOHNNY CHUNG: The key information relayed to me at this dinner from Ji was the following: “We really like your President. “We hope he will be reelected.” Or “We like him to be reelected.” I will give you $300,000 U.S. You can give it to — or use it for your President and Democrat Party.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chung said he became uncomfortable about handling the money after Liu told him the General’s true identity.

JOHNNY CHUNG: I also pointed out that the money was supposed to be for the various business deals we had discussed in July. In response, she told me that I could use the money for three things: I could give it to the President and the Democratic Party, I could use it to take care of the General’s son, Alex, and I could use it for my own purpose/business and to set up my and Liu’s companies. I never had any intention to give the $300,000 to the Democrats, and I ended up following Liu’s advice and used the money primarily for myself and for helping the General’s son, although I did make a donation to the DNC that was from the same account into which Liu made the deposit.

KWAME HOLMAN: The FBI has been able to verify only that Chung made a donation from that account totaling $20,000. California’s Henry Waxman, the committee’s top Democrat, agreed Chung’s testimony doesn’t point to a conspiracy.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: It seems to me a very strange conspiracy if the Chinese government is telling you to give $300,000 through General Ji’s comments, to give $300,000 to the Democratic Party, but he doesn’t care whether the Democratic party or the President knows it was his money. He doesn’t seem to care that you only gave $20,000 of it and not $300,000 of it to the President. If that’s the way they’ve run their conspiracy, it seems to me a very strange notion of a China plan to reelect the President.

KWAME HOLMAN: Georgia Republican Bob Barr immediately responded to Waxman’s conclusion.

REP. BOB BARR: Mr. Chairman, apparently there’s more of a gulf between the Seventh District of Georgia and Mr. Waxman’s district in California than just geography. A reasonable inference clearly for purposes of pursue this matter further, if one is indeed concerned about – which some may not be — about the integrity of our electoral system, and business as usual, maybe in California to take money from foreign sources, it is not business as usual in the Seventh District of Georgia. And when we see in the Seventh District of Georgia or when we see as former U.S. attorneys that people meet under these circumstances, talk about funneling $300,000 in, possibly using it for the reelection of the President, very likely coming from a foreign source, then further efforts made to obstruct evidence, to intimidate witnesses, these things set off red lights.

KWAME HOLMAN: As for Chung, he received five years probation for his guilty plea and must perform 3,000 hours of community service.