WASHINGTON — The White House was aglitter with holiday finery in December of 1994 when Johnny Chung escorted a Beijing businessman to the exclusive dining room for lunch before dropping by the offices of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Chung, an entrepreneur from Torrance, Calif., introduced White House aides to Chen Shizeng, the chairman of a Chinese beer company who was seeking to export his brew into the United States. Toting two Haomen six-packs--one full and one empty--the visitors snapped photos as they made their rounds. Two days later, Chung, dapper in a double-breasted jacket, presented Chen to President and Mrs. Clinton at a formal White House Christmas party.
"Starting from the White House, I want to establish an American market for Haomen beer," Chen, whose brewery ranks among China's 10 largest, told a Chinese reporter during his White House visit.
For Chung, a gregarious Taiwanese American, this account perfectly reflects his extraordinary access to the president, the first lady and numerous administration officials--and his eagerness to use that access for commercial gain. In all, Chung made at least 49 visits to the White House--often accompanied by prominent Chinese guests--between early 1994 and June of this year, according to Secret Service records.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Wednesday that Chung "most likely entertained business associates during the times he was in the White House" and "may have attempted to portray himself as someone who had greater influence than the facts would allow."
Unlike many of the first family's friends, Chung was neither a college classmate nor an Arkansas acquaintance of the Clintons. However, Chung and his company have donated a whopping $366,000 to the Democratic National Committee since August 1994, when he served as co-chairman of a presidential birthday fund-raising bash.
DNC officials, who recently have returned nearly $1.5 million in large, foreign-linked contributions because of apparent illegalities or improprieties, insist that Chung's donations are both legal and proper.
But senior administration officials acknowledge that Chung received various invitations to the White House and often talked his way into the mansion by informing staffers that he was a big-time Democratic donor. These officials said there was nothing wrong with granting Chung himself frequent entrance, but they were uneasy that he may have used the White House visits and photos to promote his business affairs.
"The White House is concerned when anyone misportrays their relationship with the White House or when they use their access to the White House for their own private commercial purposes, which is what we believe may have happened here," McCurry said.
In the annals of unconventional donors to emerge from the controversy over large contributions to the DNC, Johnny Chien Chuen Chung stands out. Few donated so much after previously giving nothing at all, or so aggressively sought to bask in the limelight of the presidency and the trappings of White House power.
And Chung has not been shy about exploiting his contacts with the Clintons to enhance the prospects for his business, a fax broadcast system and the financial interests of his friends.
His sales pitch to potential clients includes a thick portfolio filled with color photographs of himself and a smiling Clinton together at the president's 48th birthday party and inside the Oval Office, according to interviews with people who have witnessed Chung in action. A copy of his brochure, obtained by The Times, contains no fewer than 10 photos of Chung with Hillary Rodham Clinton and a personal handwritten note from the first lady thanking him "for your support and friendship."
Chung paid $40,000 to hear Mrs. Clinton speak at a Los Angeles luncheon shortly before the 1994 White House Christmas reception and $125,000 in April 1995 to attend a fund-raiser with the president at the Pacific Palisades home of filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
In his appearance, Chung hardly fits the profile of a top-dollar Democratic donor. The 41-year-old, onetime engineering student resides in a middle-class Artesia neighborhood and his business ventures appear to have enjoyed only modest success after leaving a trail of closed companies, creditors and lawsuits in recent years. Yet his partisan largess to the national party ranks him above such high rollers as Hollywood moguls Lew Wasserman and David Geffen.
Chung declined numerous requests for an interview but said in a prepared statement: "While I am honored and privileged to have met the president and various officials, neither I nor my company have received any preferential treatment from the White House or any government official--merely occasional words of encouragement."