The S Files: Making Sense of Scandal
In one of her more sour attempts at humor, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said that people concerned with the various Clinton controversies remind her of those unfortunates obsessed with "conspiracy and UFOs and the Hale-Bopp Comet." Which, since she mentioned it, kind of makes me wonder what might be at Area 51.I still haven't bothered to check out the big comet, but I am a big fan of that little show you may have heard of called "The X Files." So in the coincidence-loving spirit of Mulder and Scully (or maybe just Woodward and Bernstein)- and with all due respect to Mrs. Clinton - let's proceed with a handy guide to the cascade of sleazy White House revelations. Call it "The S Files."Actually, it's not nearly so mysterious as all that. But it is complicated. For starters, don't think of it as Whitewater. That low-rent real estate deal from Bill and Hillary Clinton's Arkansas governor days looks in retrospect like a McGuffin, the plot device in an Alfred Hitchcock film that puts the characters in motion, revealing character in action rather than word.MONEYGATEWhitewater as such is about the purported greed of the Clintons, with a not-so-healthy dose of alleged influence-peddling on the side. What the Whitewater McGuffin set in motion is much bigger than that. In fact, if much of what is alleged proves out, it's as big as or bigger than Watergate. That, after all, was a Constitution-threatening conspiracy carried out by a relatively small number of people. This is a culture-threatening set of ventures insidious for how easily they seem to be have been accepted by a great many people. Something so pervasive isn't so much a conspiracy as it is an ethic.In essence, the Clinton/Gore re-election campaign took advantage of the sieve that shady operators, silly court rulings, and complacent regulators have made of the post-Watergate political reforms and turned the national and state Democratic parties into money laundries. Contrary to the repeated claims of the president and vice president, hard evidence is emerging that massive contributions from favor-seeking businesses and individuals were directed by the White House into party coffers. Most of this money was used not to build the party but to re-elect Clinton and Al Gore. (Though the Republicans continued to out-raise Democrats in the most expensive election in U.S. history - not surprising, since they are historically the party of big money - most of their money went not to their hapless presidential ticket, but to save the unpopular Republican Congress. Clinton is especially aided by public loathing for corrupt House Speaker Newt Gingrich.)Money from particularly unsavory sources - such as, yes, the tobacco industry, and other supposed targets of Democratic policies - was channeled to the state parties, which receive far less scrutiny than the Democratic National Committee. The California Democratic Party is proving to be a major recipient of such funds.So appalling has the stench from the Democratic fundraising scandal become that the Hollywood Womens' Political Committee (HWPC) - whose members evidently got tired of having great seats on the Clinton caboose - disbanded last week in protest of our corrupt political system. The HWPC merely put together some of the biggest and most star-studded fundraisers of Clinton's presidential campaigns.THE CHINA SYNDROMEForget about Indonesia. The DNC fundraising scandals emerged last fall as a seeming oddity involving Indonesian influence-seeking. The billionaire Riady family interests of Indonesia and their longtime operative, ex-Taiwanese military officer-turned-Los Angeles banker John Huang, were found to be funneling millions to the Democratic Party. Though the Riadys and Huang were longtime friends, President Clinton decried this as example of shoddy practice by the party.Then two interesting things emerged: Clinton lied about party fundraising, which he actually micro-managed from the White House. And the Riadys are actually the Lis, ethnic Chinese investors with vast holdings in the People's Republic of China and part-ownership of a Hong Kong-based company that looks very much like a front for the Chinese intelligence service. While they have pushed for more lenient treatment of Indonesian human rights violations, a leniency which has been forthcoming, they appear to be much more focused on Chinese interests. China is the next emerging superpower, a nation whose military leaders and official press declare the U.S. to be its principal enemy. Nevertheless, China wants unfettered access to American markets, and has enlisted a powerful lobby of U.S.-based corporations and politicians, notably Senator Dianne Feinstein, to keep the U.S. market open to its products. Our biggest bilateral trade deficit is no longer with Japan, but with China.Clinton placed the Riadys' man Huang at the Commerce Department, granting him top secret clearance without his ever having to undergo a security check. Huang remained in constant contact with his former employers, then went on to head up a purported Asian-American fundraising operation for the Democratic Party. Much of the millions he raised has since been returned, and it is widely believed that some of Huang's contributors were simply fronts. Some, if not all, of this money is alleged to have come from the Chinese government. Other pols of both major parties may have received illegal Chinese money as well. Huang is now incommunicado, apparently at his home in Pasadena.Others involved, like Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie - once the proprietor of Clinton's favorite Chinese restaurant in Little Rock, now a high-flying international consultant - have fled the country. Trie brought China's chief arms dealer to meet Clinton at one of the notorious White House "coffees" while China was smuggling AK-47 assault rifles into California for sale to gang members. Subsequent to that, an undercover investigation into the smuggling operation was blown before senior Chinese officials could be snared in its web. Clinton's old restaurateur also appears to have tried to launder well over a million dollars from as yet unidentified sources into the Clinton legal defense fund and the Democratic Party. However, since he was so inartful as to present the money in a long series of sequential money orders, the funds were returned.THE WEB OF WEBB or WELCOME TO THE HOTEL CALIFORNIAWhitewater loops back into the story because of developments around two old Clinton pals. Ex-business partner James MacDougal turned state's evidence last week, receiving a light sentence in exchange for his leading prosecutors to as yet undisclosed documents. The other old pal, Hillary's former law partner, Webster "Webb" Hubbell, is at the center of a drip-drip of revelations around what looks to many observers like "hush money" and a major cover-up. What might this man who became associate attorney general of the United States before being convicted of cheating his law firm have been hushed about? In addition to knowing a very great deal about the First Couple, he had possession of most of the Whitewater files, some of which mysteriously surfaced in the White House, some of which are still missing.The Web of Webb reached into the Los Angeles elections earlier this month, where city attorney candidate Ted Stein was crippled from the outset by revelations over his role as then president of the Los Angeles Airport Commission in awarding Hubbell a $49,500 contract to lobby the Department of Transportation. According to the Washington Post, Hubbell's "work" consisted of a pair of five-minute phone calls. The Los Angeles official who helped bring this to light, City Controller Rick Tuttle, cruised to re-election on April 8.While his $100,000 payment from the Riady family (itself 80 percent of his old salary at the Rose law firm in Little Rock) is most notorious, Los Angeles also figures prominently in Hubbell's remarkable enrichment following his resignation in disgrace from the Clinton Administration. Roughly one-fifth of the known amount of money contracted to Hubbell after he left the Justice Department, which totals about $500,000, comes from L.A. In addition to the light-lifting airport deal, Hubbell was hired by an L.A. foundation to write an essay on what it's like to be a public official caught in a media culture fixated on scandal. (I love that part.) Though he writes about as well as most lawyers, Hubbell was paid $45,000 for this essay, which he, of course, never wrote.Actually, we don't know how much money was directed to Hubbell by various Clinton operatives and figures seeking to ingratiate themselves with the White House. New York corporate raider-turned-conglomerateur Ron Perelman - one of California's biggest savings & loan operators - also hired Hubbell. To, as his spokesman puts it, perform undisclosed work during an undisclosed period of time for an undisclosed amount of money. Since Perelman prided himself on being the biggest contributor to Bob Dole's secret slush fund, the so-called Better America Foundation, and to sleazeball New York Senator Al D'Amato's slush fund, it may be safe to infer that his deal with Hubbell was not for a small amount.One of the principal generators of money for Hubbell - though not, apparently, the money from L.A. - was longtime California power broker Mickey Kantor. Kantor, the president's 1992 national campaign chairman, served as U.S. trade representative and secretary of commerce during the first term. His old law firm, incidentally, headed by former Democratic national chairman Chuck Manatt, represents the Riadys' Los Angeles bank, which was run by John Huang prior to his appointment to the Commerce Department. As U.S. trade representative, Kantor took on the market-opening case of Chiquita Banana as one of only 14 cases to pursue, despite the fact that virtually all of Chiquita's employees are in Latin America. Chiquita owner Carl Lindner, a staunch Republican who is one of 1980s junk bond king Michael Milken's closest friends and allies, then immediately gave $500,000 to the Democratic Party. The money was spread around 20 state party organizations, including the California Democratic Party, in order to evade public scrutiny.While Clinton, Gore and others must wait for upcoming hearings and perhaps more, the Democratic money scandals have already probably ended the electoral careers of two of California's most prominent politicians, not to mention sending Kantor back to the private sector rather than on to the attorney generalship as the president had intended last year and shooting down the national security career of Anthony Lake. Lake, the president's national security advisor and CIA director-designate, was forced to abandon his already troubled nomination when it was revealed that he was unaware of inappropriate contacts between political fundraisers and the staff of the National Security Council.Former state insurance commissioner, Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and Sacramento County state senator John Garamendi, now deputy secretary of the interior in Washington, has done special favors in helping Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos avoid federal sanctions for the destruction of wet lands. Tsakopoulos spread hundreds of thousands of dollars around various Democratic organizations. And Garamendi has also been scored for backing Guam's desire for greater autonomy after pols on the Pacific island protectorate put together $900,000 for the Democratic National Committee.Finally, there's Leon Panetta, the veteran Monterey congressman who became White House chief of staff. Talked up late last year as a potential Democratic savior in next year's race for governor, Panetta can forget about all that. His name isn't directly attached to any of the above. But if he runs, which now appears very unlikely, he can expect to have to answer questions about a variety of things, including the very odd circumstances around Huang's security clearance, which continued even after he became a DNC fundraiser. After all, he was the chief operational officer of a White House hell-bent on doing whatever it took to raise very big money.The wreckage is already starting to pile up and the hearings haven't even started.© Copyright 1997 by William Bradley. All rights reserved.