WASHINGTON — Carrying envelopes stuffed with bundles of $50 and $100 bills, a slightly built man with a stringy mustache left his Lincoln Plaza Hotel room in Monterey Park on an unusual quest: He was looking for volunteers to accept $10,000 in cash.
Antonio Pan's trip on Aug. 15, 1996, took him through a number of middle-income Asian American communities in greater Los Angeles, where he stopped at businesses and called on distant acquaintances. He found one taker at a scrap-metal export shop in Alhambra. He located another at a used-car lot in Rosemead.
Within three days, Pan accomplished his mission, dispensing most of his $80,000 in cash. In exchange, he allegedly collected a small packet of personal checks made out to "DNC," the Democratic National Committee, an entity that some of the check-writers had never heard of.
Pan's cash-and-carry operation, described in records and testimony obtained by congressional investigators, depicts in stark detail how political operatives working for some Democratic fund-raisers were able to convert supplies of money flowing from overseas into contributions to the party's 1996 national campaign.
Many of the controversial activities at the heart of last year's campaign finance controversy involve complex and murky federal election laws. But the schemes unearthed by congressional investigators show, for the first time, in detail how foreign money was laundered before being contributed to the DNC.
Federal investigators say the clear-cut evidence is providing them with some of their strongest leads for criminal prosecution of election crimes.
The Justice Department is now investigating at least a dozen people for allegedly enlisting bogus donors or arranging illegal reimbursements. Investigators suspect that hundreds of thousands of dollars may have flowed into Democratic Party coffers through these methods.
The initial prosecutions in the campaign finance affair, anticipated as early as next month, are expected to target money-laundering, mail fraud and wire fraud violations.
The money-laundering chains used in the 1996 campaign were assembled by creative fund-raisers to address a dilemma. They had overseas businessmen who were eager to spend money for goodwill with American politicians but were not legal donors. The fund-raisers also had access to U.S. citizens with legal status as donors but without the money or the inclination to give. How to combine the two?
The operation involving Pan presented an efficient solution, according to witnesses and documents.
Records show the $80,000 originated in the Bank of China in the account of a Macau-based businessman. On Aug. 7, 1996, the money was wired to an account in the Riggs National Bank in Washington, D.C., held by Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, a controversial Democratic fund-raiser and longtime friend of President Clinton's.
The money was transferred on Aug. 15 to the American International Bank in Alhambra, where Pan, an associate of Trie, collected $60,000 in $100 bills and $20,000 in $50 bills later in the day.
Before long, the money turned into donations. Personal checks in $5,000 and $10,000 amounts were winging to DNC headquarters in Washington for the campaign.
"This takes precinct walk-around money on big-city street corners to a new high," said Richard Bennett, chief counsel of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, which is investigating campaign money-laundering. "Now we have guys on jets with thousands of dollars in cashier's checks floating around the country from abroad."
Pan could not be reached for comment. He and Trie are among a handful of figures in the fund-raising controversy who are believed to be overseas and out of the reach of investigators.
By reconstructing Pan's travels and telephone calls, Senate and House investigators have identified at least seven Asian American donors who wrote large checks to the DNC between Aug. 15 and Aug. 18, apparently at Pan's request.
"Based on documents and testimony, it is clear that foreign money made its way from bank accounts overseas through Washington to Southern California, where it was collected by Antonio Pan and distributed to straw donors," said Stephen J. Scott, a former Senate investigator now working for the House oversight committee.
None of the seven donors had given money to the DNC before, and none attended the Aug. 18 event for which they supposedly gave--Clinton's glitzy 50th-birthday party at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
It is not known whether the suspected straw donors received any extra money for their trouble or were just helping out an acquaintance. It is not even clear if all of them understood what the checks were being used for.
Chen Chang Tu, the Alhambra scrap metal exporter, "was used by Antonio Pan," Brian A. Sun, Tu's attorney in Santa Monica, said. Sun added that Tu became "an unknowing and unwitting participant" in Pan's plan to find conduit donors.