Drawing a connection between political donations and government appointments, a Democratic former Senate aide who helped assemble a trade commission has told investigators the White House screened potential nominees using contributor lists.
Steve Clemons is quoted in House Republicans’ interview notes as saying he tried unsuccessfully to block one major donor, Yah Lin “Charlie” Trie, from being appointed to the Asian trade advisory panel.
Clemons told investigators he was informed by administration officials that Trie was “an absolute must appointment” who had come “directly from the highest levels of the White House,” the GOP interview summary states.
The White House, including the personnel official who handled Trie’s appointment, strongly disputed Clemons’ account on Wednesday.
“My client, under oath, has categorically denied there was any contribution list from which they picked or chose members for this commission,” said A. Scott Bolden, the lawyer for White House Associate Personnel Director Charles Duncan. “There was never any pressure from White House higher-ups.”
But two-year-old government e-mails among presidential aides, obtained by The Associated Press, state the White House sought to increase the size of the commission so Trie could be added and that they considered the Arkansas businessman a “DNC nominee.”
Trie, a key figure in the investigation into Democratic fund raising, delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the president’s legal defense fund and the Democratic National Committee that were returned because of suspicions they came from illegal foreign sources.
He was recently indicted on charges he violated federal fund-raising laws.
Clemons, a senior adviser to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., between 1995 and 1997, is the first Democrat to draw a specific connection between government appointments and political money - an assertion the White House denied again Wednesday.
“Mr. Trie was appointed to the commission because of his background as an Asian-American, his knowledge about Asian issues, his experience as a small businessman as well as the fact that he was a friend and supporter of the president,” spokesman Jim Kennedy said.
In a recent interview with Republican investigators for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Clemons alleged Duncan had told him in 1995 that he was checking some “recommendations for the commission against a list of donors to the DNC and campaign,” the summary states.
“Duncan made it clear to Clemons that this was how the process was going to work,” it said. Clemons disagreed with the approach “and expressed frustration that the commission was becoming more about political payoffs than solving the problems of trade deficits.”
Clemons issued a statement saying he “strongly objected to the public release of notes that the committee explicitly and repeatedly indicated would be kept confidential.”
He said he was “truthful and candid” with the investigators but that the notes contained some “inaccuracies and misrepresentations.”
An individual familiar with Clemons’ account, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the former staffer stood behind his assertion that the administration officials told him political donations played a role in appointments.
Clemons was involved in the formation of the United States-Pacific Trade and Investment Commission, a presidential advisory panel that advises the U.S. government on trade policies to pursue in the Pacific.
He told investigators the White House was more interested in checking nominees for the panel from corporate America “against donor and friends lists” than in finding nominees who met the qualifications Bingaman was seeking.
According to the notes, Clemons said he recalled one conversation in which a major paper company executive’s name came up as a potential nominee and Duncan “made it clear that he was being considered solely because he was a major donor.”