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Official Says Taiwan Mission Named Possible Donors

Finances: De facto embassy helped some House, Senate members link up with potential contributors, a top Taipei representative discloses.

March 06, 1997|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Some members of the House and Senate have received assistance from Taiwan's diplomatic mission in Washington in raising political contributions from Chinese Americans, according to a top-level Taiwan government official.

The source, who is familiar with Taiwan's lobbying efforts in the United States, said both Republican and Democratic members of Congress have regularly asked staff members of Taiwan's de facto embassy to broker donations to their campaigns from Chinese Americans living in their states and districts.

It is highly unusual--if not illegal--for foreign governments to assist American politicians in fund-raising. Federal law prohibits representatives of foreign governments from interfering in U.S. elections.

In Washington, Jack Lee, a top official of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, or TECRO, which functions as Taiwan's de facto embassy, strongly denied the accusation. "We have no knowledge of such activities; the Taipei office has never been involved in domestic affairs," he said.

The Taiwan official's account shifts the focus of the current controversy over foreign influence in campaign fund-raising from individual contributors and party officials like John Huang to elected officials themselves, according to Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group. "Congress has portrayed this crisis as John Huang or the DNC being out of control. This takes it up a notch because members of Congress have tried to portray themselves as above the fray," Lewis said.

Several present and former members of Congress contacted by The Times said they were unaware of the practice, although they noted that Taiwan has a reputation for effectively courting U.S. politicians.

Former Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), who was one of the first members of Congress to systematically raise large amounts of money from Asian American donors, said it would be "a gross interference in the elections of this country" for TECRO to assist American politicians in finding donors.

In some cases, according to the Taiwanese source, TECRO contacted potential Chinese American donors on behalf of members of Congress. In other instances, he said, TECRO simply gave the members of Congress lists of names and addresses of Chinese Americans in their districts.

Normally, the source said, members of Congress did not ask directly for fund-raising assistance from TECRO, but instead indicated their desire for help through vaguely worded comments during private meetings with officials of the Taiwan diplomatic mission.

"The senators and congressmen expressed their wishes to have Chinese Americans in their region help them, and we [the Taiwan government] simply passed on the information," the source said.

The Taiwan mission did not reimburse the Chinese Americans who contributed to campaigns at their request, and thus it was not viewed as a way to skirt restrictions on foreign contributions, the source said.

Although the Chinese American donors were contacted by Taiwan's envoys to the United States, their donations were personal and did not represent a contribution from Taiwan, he said. "They are Americans," the source said of the donors. "It's legal for them to give" to a campaign.

He portrayed the role of the TECRO staff as minimal.

"We just let them [Chinese Americans] know who asked us for help," he said. "They [prospective donors] made their own decision how and if they were going to do it [donate to a campaign]. And if they donated, they knew they had to do it in a lawful way."

The congressmen and senators did not offer anything in return for Taiwan's help in securing donations, and the Taiwan officials did not seek specific favors in exchange for the help, the source said.

TECRO and its predecessor organization, the Coordination Council for North American Affairs, have operated as the de facto embassy of the Taiwanese government in Washington since 1979, when the United States broke diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of mainland China.

Because Taiwan has no formal diplomatic relations with the United States, representatives of Taipei have employed many nontraditional methods of winning influence in Washington. Among them, Taiwan, acting through a variety of quasi-government groups, has paid for trips to Taiwan for hundreds of members of Congress and their aides.

Even if Chinese Americans donated their own money at the request of a foreign government, Hsu Fu-tong, a former Democratic fund-raiser, said that such activity could be harmful to Asian Americans.

Hsu, an American who is vice president of Chang Jung University in Taiwan, said that if the allegations of fund-raising through the diplomatic mission are true, the actions of a few Chinese Americans could taint the legitimate political activity of others.

"I'm really afraid Asian Americans who participate in politics will be stereotyped" as cooperating with foreign governments, he said. "People will ask, 'Are you one of those?' whenever we get involved."

Times staff writer Sara Fritz in Washington contributed to this story.

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