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Democrats Face New Legal Issue In Contributions Party Under Attack For Donations Tied To Foreign Interests

Raising questions about the legality of an immigrant couple’s $320,000 in donations to the Democratic Party, federal election officials said Thurday it is unclear whether only citizens legally can make contributions when they do not live in the United States.

The uncertainty presents the Democrats with a troublesome new issue. The party already has returned one large illegal contribution from a foreign corporation and has come under attack for other donations tied to foreign interests.

And in another embarrassing development, the Democratic National Committee, which handled the contributions, acknowledged it has identified another illegal donation of $10,000 in its accounts from a South Korean electronics executive. Committee officials said the money is being returned. The executive, John K.H. Lee, is chairman of Cheong Am America, Inc., which made the $250,000 contribution the DNC refunded last month.

The new legal questions center on $320,000 of a total of $450,000 given to the Democrats in the last year by Arief and Soraya Wiriadinata, Indonesian nationals who hold immigration green cards making them legal U.S. residents. The well-connected couple began giving while living in suburban Washington, where Arief Wiriadinata was a landscape architect, but continued to contribute for months after they moved back to Indonesia.

Critics have challenged the huge donations as a possible sign of undue foreign influence on the U.S. political process. But this week the legality of the contributions also was questioned after the Los Angeles Times reported that most of the money had been sent from Indonesia rather than the United States.

The issue has further fueled a growing controversy over the integrity of the Democratic Party’s campaign financing effort in a year when both parties are raising record sums after making unfulfilled vows to take tough action to reform campaign finance laws.

Federal Election Commission officials declined to comment on the specifics of the Wiriadinata case, saying they would not deal with it unless a formal complaint is filed. However, they said, it is uncertain whether such overseas donations are permissible for noncitizens.

Immigrants holding green cards are permitted to donate to U.S. campaigns, according to the legal standard employed by the FEC for 22 years. The DNC has maintained the Wiriadinatas’ contributions are legal and proper.

But Republicans challenged that interpretation of the law this week in connection with the Wiriadinatas’ contributions. FEC lawyers then examined the law and found the issue of donations by noncitizens with green cards who have left the United States has never been considered by the commission, FEC spokesman Ian Stirton said.

“This has not been looked at before,” Stirton said. “It’s ambiguous.”

He said the deliberation process on a formal complaint would take many months, stretching well beyond the Nov. 5 election.