Senate sets out to trace Clinton cash

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The Independent Online
A Senate investigation that has the potential to disgrace President Bill Clinton and blight Vice-President Al Gore's chances of the presidency three years from now opens today, after six months of charges and counter- charges about dubious practices in last year's presidential election campaign.

Chaired by Senator Fred Thompson, the chief Republican counsel in the Senate hearings into America's last great political scandal, Watergate, the committee will ask essentially the same question: "What did the President know, and when did he know it?"

This time, the purpose is not to get to the bottom of a specific crime but to track the source of millions of dollars that found their way into the campaign coffers - primarily, but not exclusively, of the Democrats - during the last election campaign. The question is not whether the fund- raising rules were broken - that is clear - but whether the interests of the state were subverted.

More than 200 witnesses have been called and the questioning is expected to focus on three areas. How far did the President and/or his Vice-President know of, co-operate with or even mastermind illegal fund-raising? Was money accepted from foreigners despite rules banning foreign donations, and did China or any other foreign power try to buy political influence?

The cast includes several Asian-Americans and Arkansas associates of the Clintons: Charlie Trie, a former restaurateur in Mr Clinton's home state of Arkansas; John Huang, a one-time Arkansas bank employee who joined the Democratic National Committee as a star fund- raiser via the US Commerce Department; James Riady, a senior executive of the Indonesian Lippo banking group, and Roger Tamraz, a Lebanese-American businessman who wanted US support for a Caspian oil pipeline project.

Among the allegations is the celebrated charge that over- night stays in the White House Lincoln bedroom or flights on the presidential plane, Air Force One, could be bought in return for big donations to the Democrats. Others include the use of White House telephones to solicit campaign contributions (misusing federal property for party political purposes) and Mr Gore's presence at the dedication of a Buddhist temple in California, perhaps in return for a large political contribution.

More serious charges, which will be far more difficult to establish, allege the filtering of millions of dollars from Asian companies into the Democrat campaign and the suggestion that Mr Huang abused his top- level security clearance.

Key witnesses, moreover, are evaporating. Charlie Trie is in Shanghai and is said to have no intention of returning to the US. Roger Tamraz is in detention in Georgia (Transcaucasia, not the US) and James Riady is also abroad. John Huang says he will invoke the Fifth Amendment and several Washington-based witnesses are said to have demanded immunity from prosecution if they are to testify. There is also pressure for Mr Clinton or Mr Gore to appear, but their presence is unlikely.