$50,000 check handed to first lady’s chief of staff in White House
WASHINGTON (AP) _ California businessman Johnny Chung walked into the White House in March 1995 with a smile and a handshake for the president and a $50,000 check that he gave to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief of staff.
The check, which the Democratic National Committee says it is returning because of questions about the origin of the money, is only the latest twist in the controversial White House visit by Chung, who brought half a dozen Chinese officials with him to a Saturday morning presidential radio address.
White House spokeswoman Ann Lewis said Wednesday that Mrs. Clinton’s top aide, Margaret Williams, recalls receiving a check from Chung inside the White House. Williams told him that it would be passed along to the DNC in conformity with internal White House procedures set up by the counsel’s office, Lewis said.
Lewis added that Williams does not recall the amount of the check, the date she accepted it or whom she forwarded it to. But DNC records show $50,000 from Chung came into the party on March 17, six days after the president’s radio address.
Donald Fowler, the DNC chairman at the time, doesn’t recall the circumstances surrounding the check’s arrival at party offices, DNC spokeswoman Amy Weiss Tobe said.
The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from knowingly receiving a political contribution. Presidential aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Williams did not violate the Hatch Act prohibition on receiving campaign contributions when she took the $50,000.
Regulations that accompany the act say receipt of campaign contributions doesn’t include handling, disbursing or accounting functions for donations, the aides said.
Asked about the money delivered to Williams, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said the ``law is pretty clear that you should not solicit or receive a campaign contribution in federal buildings.″
Lott referred not to the Hatch Act, but to a second law barring receipt of campaign donations in federal buildings.
``I don’t know the circumstances, but it would appear that a mistake was made there, and perhaps a violation of the law, even though she might have turned it around pretty quickly and turned it over to some other people at the Democratic National Committee,″ Lott said on CNN’s ``Larry King Live.″
In a statement two months ago, Chung said he was ``honored and privileged to have met the president and various officials.″ He added that ``neither I nor my company have received any preferential treatment from the White House.″
But Chung’s lawyer, Brian Sun, said on NBC: ``Mr. Chung was seeking some access, and there may well have been some implicit understanding or perhaps some hopes on Mr. Chung’s part that a donation might well facilitate his request.″
After Chung’s visit, the National Security Council weighed in with an opinion when asked whether the White House should provide a photo of the president as Chung requested.
The NSC staff concluded the delegation ``appeared to include bona fide present or former Chinese officials″ and that providing the photo would not cause ``any lasting damage to foreign policy.″ But they raised concerns that Chung may have had business motives for the request.
When the DNC announced last week that $1.5 million in questionable campaign contributions was being returned, Chung’s $50,000 donation was among them.
The DNC said $275,000 of the more than $300,000 that Chung has given to the Democratic Party since 1994 was being returned because of insufficient information about its origin.
Chung reportedly has made at least 49 trips to the White House, meeting with both Clinton and Mrs. Clinton.
Congressional and Justice Department investigations are focusing on the DNC’s fund-raising practices during the 1996 campaign, including possible donations from foreign sources.
Lott met Wednesday with the Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee, trying to forge agreement on how much to spend on the Senate’s fund-raising investigation.
A Senate Republican source, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said Lott discussed a proposal that would allow the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate possible illegalities in congressional fund-raising in addition to possible illegal activities during the 1996 presidential campaign.
The source said $4.3 million would be allocated for the investigation through Dec. 31, although the committee could ask for additional money if necessary.
On Tuesday, Lott said: ``The scope should be limited to illegal activities in the presidential campaigns last year″ and other related practices by the two major political parties.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, had sought $5.7 million, and the committee has unanimously agreed to include congressional fund-raising in its probe.