the fixers

Larry Klayman

Larry Klayman Larry Klayman is chairman and general counsel of Judicial Watch Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based public watchdog group that focuses on ethics and legal standards. Klayman is responsible for obtaining documents from the US Commerce Department through the Freedom of Information Act that revealed a suspicious nexus of money and politics involving high-ranking government officials and major Democratic donors such as the Lums.

trade missions | Gene and Nora Lum | Melinda Yee, John Huang, et al. | Ron Brown investigation

Q: How and why did you begin scrutinizing the US Commerce Department?

Klayman: I'm a trial lawyer of 20 years, and I've always practiced in front of the Department of Commerce, among my various duties. I understood that the Commerce Department under any administration was a place where politics was prevalent, where money met government....Secretary Brown was the champion of campaign financing of the Democratic Party, and we filed what are known as Freedom of Information Act requests.

That is, we asked the Department of Commerce to produce documents about the trade missions that Ron Brown had been touting....[He] claimed that he was producing American jobs; we felt that it was a ripe opportunity for him to sell those trade missions in exchange for large campaign contributions to the Democratic Party.

When the Commerce Department stonewalled our request, we were forced to file suit. [We] were fortunate to have the case assigned to a very tough judge in Washington, D.C., [and] this judge put his foot down and required the production of over 30,000 documents.

[In] going through those documents, we uncovered a pattern that seats on trade missions,...financed at taxpayers' expense, were in effect sold to large campaign contributors to the Democratic Party....

This was also confirmed in the publications that were issuing from the Democratic National Committee -- publications such as pamphlets where seats on trade missions were sold for $100,000 a pop. And recently, ...we also found [other] documents [that] showed that seats on trade missions were being sold frequently for $100,000.

Our worst suspicions were confirmed. And they were also confirmed by publications such as the Boston Globe who tracked the individuals who went on the trade missions and found a very high frequency of donors who made large $100,000 contributions, apparently in exchange for government services on these trade missions.

Q:Why are trade missions important?

Klayman: Trade missions are important because they're a means for large corporations to try to do business overseas. Most of these large corporations could certainly do business on their own. But when they have the Secretary of Commerce...hawking their goods and services, it obviously is a significant push to be able to get into foreign markets.

The problem is how you select those corporations. ...[The] corporations, by and large, were selected under the Clinton administration by virtue of how much money they put into the coffers of the Clinton/Gore re-election campaign with the Democratic National Committee. That's not an appropriate way to decide who gets the benefit of government services paid for by taxpayers like you and me, and who does not. That creates a type of discrimination.

...[There] were no criteria for selection other than whom Secretary Brown wished to take. At the end of the day, he was the one who made the decision. Frequently the decision was not even communicated in writing to a company or an executive [who] was chosen, but was simply told orally. And there were no actual criteria to decide who qualified, and who did not qualify. In fact, the only qualification that we've been able to ascertain was how much money a recipient -- an executive that went on these missions -- gave to the Democratic Party.

Q:So there's a direct pattern of contributing and getting on missions?

Klayman: That's correct, and that's consistent with other things that we know about this administration, whether it's overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom, whether it's seats on Air Force One. All of these types of things have been uncovered in our case by congressional investigators, and in assistant to the President himself took from the White House. These things are no longer in dispute.

The Commerce Department was the place where this illegal activity began. In effect, it was the cradle of illegal fund-raising civilization, probably because Ron Brown was there: Ron Brown the all-time money maker of the Democratic Party, the previous chairman of the Democratic National Committee who helped elect Clinton.

Q:What did you find when you reviewed the trade mission to China?

Klayman: The China trade mission is particularly important. It's a mission that Mr. John Huang participated [in], in terms of arranging for that mission, in terms of sitting in on meetings.

...[We] discovered John Huang [is] a previous executive of Lippo Bank, a billion-dollar corporation with headquarters in Indonesia, affiliates in the United States and Hong Kong and China, throughout the world, [and is] owned by a Chinese family. And, of course, Mr. Huang is himself Chinese.

What's important about that trip is that Mr. Huang, who helped arrange for that trade mission, also participated in activities...dealing with the Lippo Bank on that trade trip. And it was on that trip that Lippo Bank and an American company in conjunction with the Chinese government, proposed a multi-billion dollar deal to build a dam. And it was on that project that we believe many of the illegal activities [occurred] in terms of fund-raising, in terms of potential private profiteering, in terms of other illegal activities...It's probably the best known example of how Lippo participated in Department of Commerce trade missions under Ron Brown.

Q: Did you come across the names of Nora and Gene Lum in these Commerce Department documents, too?

Klayman: Yes, in terms of the documents that were produced early on in our case, we see that a Nora Lum actually was scheduled to go on one of these trips. Now Mrs. Lum apparently was the owner of a company called Dynamic Energy [Resources] down in Oklahoma, and it's been reported that that company paid large sums of money to the son of Ron Brown to sit on its board of directors.

It's also been reported that there was a falling out between the owners of Dynamic Energy, between Nora Lum and a Mr. [W. Stuart] Price....Mr. Price alleged that Nora Lum...had bragged about paying money to the Brown family through Michael Brown [and] owning the Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown.

This obviously is a significant event. It was subject to an independent counsel investigation, which ended at the time that Ron Brown died. The Justice Department claims that it's currently investigating this matter; however, we've uncovered no indication that any real or bona fide investigation has taken place.

...[It] is an example [of] how Ron Brown would mix politics [and] government service with his own private profiteering. And at the time that he died, investigators were looking into whether or not Ron Brown, through his son Michael Brown, was receiving monies from Nora Lum.

Now, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the daughter of Nora Lum, Trisha Lum, worked for Ron Brown at the Department of Commerce. And we also know that [the mother of] another key player in the various events involving this scandal, Melinda Yee, reported to have owned stock in the company Dynamic Energy. Melinda Yee was a close assistant of Ron Brown [and] was reported to go on many trade missions with Ron Brown and...take notes.

Our group, Judicial Watch, was very interested in getting those notes, because perhaps through the notes, we would learn specifically what went on at these trade missions [and] what went on in China....

[Unfortunately], Ms. Yee...admitted to destroying notes of documents on trade missions...which Judicial Watch had requested in its Freedom of Information Act request [and] which the court had ordered to be produced.

And we know from deposing Ms. Yee that two weeks before she was deposed, she claimed to have been in contact with an individual by the name of John Tisdale. John Tisdale is the [law] partner of Bruce Lindsey, one of the Clinton advisors in the White House....Mr. Tisdale was then called by a reporter of the Washington Times after we took the deposition of Ms. Yee, and according to the reporter, he told that reporter that he was in contact with Ms. Yee in the summer of 1995. This is the period that she admits to having destroyed documents concerning trade missions.

All of these things point to...what we believe to be a large cover-up by the Department of Commerce, by the Clinton administration, and by individuals who were involved. And it seems that they were all part of a giant conspiracy to use government services, not just for campaign contributions, but possibly even for personal enrichment....[We] see that, of course, in the Dynamic Energy affair....

Q: How did the Lums wind up on a preliminary list as possible participants on the China trade mission?

Klayman: We can only assume that the Lums were put on that preliminary list because they were large contributors to the Democratic Party, because they had...employed...Michael Brown, the son of Ron Brown, and because Mrs. Lum's daughter, Trisha Lum, worked at the Department of Commerce.

These individuals obviously are not sophisticated international traders. They have no known background in international trade....[For] them to be chosen, one can only conclude it was...based on their contacts with Ron Brown.

Q: Why would the Lums want to be on a trade mission like China?

Klayman: It's a tremendous opportunity for companies to meet business leaders overseas. It's a tremendous opportunity to meet government leaders from China. All of these contacts can be very important in business. And to have the US government give you an assist with these types of activities obviously can be very important.

Now one can, of course, ask the question whether the government should be helping any companies. That's corporate welfare. But quite apart from that, the fact that companies that were being helped on these trade missions were those which had donated heavily, or had some contacts with Ron Brown, calls into question how taxpayer finance resources are being used.

...This is a country of laws. This is a country where everybody is equal. It's not a country where money should buy special favors, and unfortunately, this country has become a nation where money does buy special favors. The Clinton administration has taken it to a higher art form.

It's time to bring these issues to light so the public can demand that they stop because whether you're someone who sleeps on a grate in front of the White House or whether you're someone that stays in the Lincoln bedroom...should not depend on whether you give $100,000 to the Democratic Party. It should depend on your ability, on your sense of equality. And it should depend on the American way, which is to treat everybody equally, not on how much have.

Q: Did you also come across the Lums' names on documents regarding an APEC meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia?

Klayman: Yes, we did. We found documents that reflect that Nora Lum went on an APEC meeting,...[and] we found instances of others who...had close contacts with Ron Brown. Businessmen who had gone on more than one trip sometimes were called back to go on other trips, obviously because of what they had contributed.

Q: Why would the Lums want to be at an APEC meeting?

Klayman: There are a number of reasons why you'd want to be present at an APEC meeting. First of all, it's obviously to meet business leaders and government leaders [who] can help you in your private business. Secondly, it's extremely prestigious. This is the type of activity can brag about with other colleagues, so-called "face time," where you have an opportunity to elevate yourself in the eyes of the general business community.

And last but not least, it gives you an opportunity to meet with high officials of the Clinton administration. Because if you're conducting international business, or business of any sort, government regulation in our country obviously is very prolific. And to have these kinds of contacts is very important in terms of solving problems not the fair way, but based on who you know and how much you donate.

Q: Anyone is welcome at an APEC meeting, but what does it mean to be invited and to participate in a government reception?

Klayman: It means that it's extremely prestigious. Not everybody is invited to go on APEC meetings. Unfortunately, [it is] primarily those people who know the President, and those people who have...paid for that privilege. This is something which rises in terms of prestige based upon how much money you've donated and based upon who you know. To have that opportunity is a tremendous business advantage.

Q: Is it possible that the Lums went simply because they are friends with Ron Brown?

Klayman: Well, there are a lot of people who are friends with Ron Brown. Unfortunately, the people that went on these trade missions were people who usually gave money to the Democratic Party and, we believe, also to Ron Brown.

Q: Did you ever look at Dynamic Energy Resources?

Klayman: We did. We asked a number of questions [of] Melinda Yee, [whose] mother owned shares of stock in Dynamic Energy. Her lawyers instructed her not to answer those questions, but we will be going back to the court asking for an order to have her answer them. This was a topic, obviously, which struck a raw nerve....

Q: Who is Melinda Yee, and why is she important?

Klayman: Melinda Yee is a very well-known Democratic Party operative. She's part of the inner circle of Asian-Americans who worked closely with John Huang, not just in terms of fund-raising for the Democratic Party, but trying to have Asian-Americans appointed to high positions in the Clinton administration.

Obviously, the fact that you would have appointees of the Asian-American community is a noble goal. But the problem here is that political contacts were used, that fund-raising became the modus operandi to have people appointed. People were not, by and large, appointed on the basis of merit, but on the basis of whom they knew.

These individuals, such as Melinda Yee, John Huang and others, were part of an inner core of individuals who worked at the Department of Commerce, who participated in trade missions, who...used those trade missions to raise large amounts of money for the Democratic Party, [and] who tried to propel themselves forward in the Democratic Party establishment [and Clinton administration] by virtue of their activities and fund-raising....

Q: How does John Huang, now at the center of the fund-raising scandal, fit into this?

Klayman: John Huang was a very close friend of Pres. Clinton who went to Arkansas in his early days. He ran some of the banks for the Lippo Group in Arkansas, got to know then-Gov. Clinton, and moved with the Clinton administration into Washington at the highest levels.

...[He] was paid in excess of $700,000 to take a job [which] he claims was as a budget clerk at the Department of Commerce. Of course, we determined that he was not a budget clerk; in fact, he was highly involved in the trade missions. He was getting security briefings on a regular basis. He apparently, according to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, was regularly visiting the Chinese embassy. And, obviously, there's great concern that Mr. Huang was involved in matters quite apart from the Commerce Department, which may have hinged on the breach of national security secrets, perhaps with the Chinese government.

Q: And who is Maria Haley?

KLAYMAN: Maria Haley was [a bank executive] and was heavily consulted by a number of individuals who participated on that Quang Dong dam project in China....She's another Asian-American who was appointed by the Clinton administration to a high post.

Exen Bank financing was discussed with regard to the Quang Dong dam project in China. Exen Bank gives loans to American companies that export overseas. It's...a form of corporate welfare, and companies that get those kind of loans get a significant government benefit. So we are concerned that she may have been involved in selling government services for campaign contributions, along with John Huang and the others.

Q: The Lums contributed maybe a couple of hundred thousand dollars to the Democrats. They have a small company in Oklahoma. How does that measure up in any significant way to today's multi-billion dollar campaigns?

Klayman: What's significant is that, unfortunately, politicians can be bought very cheaply in Washington, although I wouldn't say $200,000 was cheap. But obviously, money does work here. It's the modus operandi for politicians from all walks of life. The Lums recognized that....

Q: Where has the investigation of Ron Brown led?

Klayman: Unfortunately, the investigation of Ron Brown by Independent Counsel Daniel Pearson concluded at [Brown's] death....We've seen no indication that the Justice Department has followed through with its investigation, just like we've seen no indication that the Department of Justice is...investigating the campaign finance scandal as a whole...

Just today I took the deposition of the secretary of John Huang, Janice Stewart?. I asked Janice Stewart if she's ever been contacted by anyone at the Department of Justice about John Huang. She said, "No." I've asked other key witnesses in our case whether they've ever heard from the Department of Justice. The answer was, "No."

We know that Janet Reno has been resisting appointing an independent counsel...[and] has been doing the investigation in-house at the Department of Justice. Obviously, an attorney general who was appointed by Pres. Clinton cannot investigate her own Chief Executive Officer. Nor can she investigate her own administration.

Q: You also asked John Huang's secretary about contact with the Lums?

Klayman: That's correct. We asked Janice Stewart...whether she had ever talked by telephone with Nora Lum. And she said that she had, but she could not remember the subject of the conversation. We also asked Janice Stewart...whether she had ever been asked to shred documents in [the] office...occupied by John Huang...and others.

And she said that on a number of occasions,...she had been asked by Mr. Huang and others to shred documents. [She said] that there were no policy or guidelines on which documents to shred, that there was a shredder in the office, and that sometimes there was so much shredding that the shredder would break down.

...In addition, we learned that Melinda Yee, a close assistant to John Huang, destroyed documents of notes that she took on trade missions. And we've also learned through our depositions that many of the witnesses [whom] we've deposed inexplicably have developed short memories. That is, they can't remember simple facts...

Last but not least,...although we've received thousands of documents, we've never received any...communications [between the Commerce Department] and... the White House or...the Democratic National Committee. This is obviously impossible, because the Democratic National Committee's own brochures say that they were selling...diplomatic trade missions.

These types of activities all point to the fact that the Clinton administration does not want to come clean -- that it's engaged in a huge cover-up..., that witnesses have likely been intimidated to have short memories, and that [many] documents...remain unaccounted for...

Q: What were the Lums up to? What did they really want?

Klayman: We don't know everything that they want, but what we have been able to piece together, as trial lawyers often do, is that [the] facts add up to the Lums trying to buy [the] influence of Secretary Ron Brown and the Clinton administration.

First and foremost, they hired the son of Ron a lobbyist. Ron Brown's son has never passed the bar exam to this day. Why would they hire the son of Ron Brown if they didn't want special favors out of the Clinton administration? We know that the son of Ron Brown owned golf [club] memberships paid for by the Lums and Dynamic Energy. We know that Ron Brown's son owned shares of stock in the company. It has been alleged that Ron Brown himself was receiving monies through his son from the Lums.

These are all matters that were being investigated by the independent counsel when Ron Brown died. These are matters [that] the Department of Justice is supposed to be investigating now.


home | fixers game | interviews | special reports | cartoons | "show us the money" | press | discussion
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
PBS Online