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Indonesian Financier Sought Senators' Favors

Politics: Before backing Clinton, James Riady raised money for Democratic lawmakers, records show.

May 04, 1997|WILLIAM REMPEL and ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Indonesian financier James Riady, a central figure in the controversy over campaign donations supporting President Clinton's reelection, sought direct business benefits from earlier fund-raising alliances with U.S. senators, according to documents obtained by The Times.

A memo by Riady in April 1988 outlined a plan to press senators to urge Taiwan to ease its banking rules and allow Asian American banks, "or at least [the Riady-owned] Bank of Trade," to open a branch office there. The memo was prepared four days after Riady hosted a dinner for Asian American donors at his Brentwood home that raised $110,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Riady, whose family controls the $12-billion Lippo Group conglomerate in the Far East, also expressed his desire that various federal agencies and an arm of the Democratic Party deposit funds into his and other Asian American banks. "Perhaps the DSCC could start by making a deposit at Bank of Trade," Riady wrote.

The three-page memo, with a handwritten cover note on the Los Angeles-based Bank of Trade letterhead, was sent to Asian American fund-raiser Maria Hsia, an organizer of the controversial 1996 Democratic fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights with Vice President Al Gore.

Riady asked Hsia to follow up with the senators "and let me know of progress" on those and other issues ranging from sponsoring the lawmakers' travel to Asian capitals to enlisting their assistance on special immigration problems.

Attorneys for Riady and Hsia declined to comment on the document.

Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, who was DSCC chairman in 1988, called it "a raw, graphic memo" reflecting the kind of special-interest agenda he said is "usually communicated discreetly and verbally, not in writing." But he said he recalls no effort to lobby him on behalf of Riady's financial interests.

The documents--from files of the now-defunct Pacific Leadership Council that Riady and Hsia formed to tap ethnic Asian donors--open a new chapter in the fund-raising saga, further indicating that foreign interests may have tried to buy influence not only in the White House but in Congress as well.

Moreover, the documents, containing many of the seeds of the 1996 campaign finance furor, could undercut White House claims that longtime friendship alone was behind the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the Riadys, their companies and employees have spent and raised to back Clinton.

"I can tell you categorically that there was no influence" on administration policy by the Riadys, Clinton said after his reelection in November.

Records show that the Riadys' companies, their executives and close associates have contributed a total of $854,300 to the Democratic National Committee alone since 1991 and nearly $1 million more to various Democratic committees and candidates.

It appears that Riady and his colleagues were successful in obtaining at least some of the favors they expressly sought from Congress, beginning in the late 1980s.

For example, U.S. senators accompanied PLC members on at least two trips to Asia, including one in 1989 that featured then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore. According to the minutes of a PLC planning meeting, the Asian visit was "a good chance to recruit new members overseas; and potentially to raise some money for PLC"--a problematic tactic because political contributions by non-U.S. legal residents are prohibited.

Immigration Matters

Other successes included help on special immigration matters by then-Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois. He interceded with State Department officials in response to Asian American donor requests to help reverse visa rejections.

Asked if fund-raising support prompted his involvement, Simon said: "The honest answer is that you are less than human if you don't try to help people who try to help you."

Three of the Democratic senators who were active raising money for the DSCC also recommended John Huang--the Riadys' top banking executive in the United States and a founding member of the PLC--for an appointment in the new Clinton administration in 1993. One of those early Huang backers was Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who as minority leader has fought to expand the Senate probe of Clinton election fund-raising to include various Republican campaigns.

Huang was awarded a mid-level Commerce Department job in 1994 and later moved to the DNC as a fund-raiser, where he brought in $3.4 million in 10 months. His solicitation of illegal and suspect campaign funds triggered the ongoing controversy.

Federal investigators are examining whether campaign assistance from the Riadys and Huang had any impact on administration actions. In addition, they are probing whether the Riady family or Huang acted as conduits for illegal foreign money from China--where the family has invested heavily--or if Huang provided classified information to the Riadys or the Chinese government.

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