Influence Peddling, Bush Style
From the outset of George W. Bush's campaign, the restoration of honor and integrity to the White House has been a key sales pitch of the Texas governor. Bush has declared that it's time to replace the wheelers and dealers of the Clinton years with "plain-spoken" Americans. In a recent television ad, his allies in the Republican Party blasted Vice President Al Gore's association with scandal, noting that "because of Gore's last fundraising campaign, twenty-two people have been indicted, twelve convicted, seventy took the Fifth Amendment and eighteen witnesses fled the country." On September 23, Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson accused Gore and the Democrats of accepting money since 1996 from "foreigners who are no friends to the US." In short, Bush and his lieutenants have argued, his crowd is better than the other crowd. But Bush's crowd includes family members and a political associate who have done business with one of the prime targets of the Republicans' investigations into Chinese espionage and Democratic fundraising abuses.
In their relentless efforts to reveal and exploit Democratic misdeeds, and in search of a Beijing connection to Democratic Party fundraising violations, Republican investigators in the House and the Senate have focused on the Charoen Pokphand Group, an enormous Bangkok-based agribusiness and telecommunications conglomerate and one of the largest foreign investors in China. (The company's business registration number in China is 0001.) Its CEO is 61-year-old Dhanin Chearavanont, one of the wealthiest men in Asia, who is of ethnic Chinese descent. On June 18, 1996, Chearavanont and two CP Group officials attended one of the infamous White House kaffeeklatsches. The trio were accompanied to the meet-and-sip session with President Clinton by Pauline Kanchanalak, a Thai businesswoman and lobbyist, who has since pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to the Democratic National Committee. (The Democrats returned the money she raised.) During the seventy-five-minute coffee, which was organized by John Huang, a DNC fundraiser who has also pleaded guilty to illegal fundraising, Chearavanont did most of the talking, stressing the importance of maintaining normal trade relations with China.
The Republican-controlled Senate Government Affairs Committee cited the June 18 event as an example of the "merchandising of the Presidency." The committee's final report noted: "It is clear that the coffee's essential purpose was to sell the President's time to Kanchanalak, who...donated $235,000 to the DNC the next day." The money for these contributions, the report maintained, came from "sources in Thailand," and the committee referred to the CP Group.
Other Clinton critics have pointed to the CP Group while chasing after evidence that China bought influence with the Administration. The Cox Report (formally titled "U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China"), which was released last year by Republican Representative Christopher Cox, recounted the June 18 coffee with Chearavanont and the two other CP Group officials as an example of how China uses its commercial allies to lobby for policies that favor China. The conservative American Spectator published a piece in June 1997 alleging that "front companies for communist China have been actively buying up (and spying on) the US," and it noted, with a heavy hint of suspicion, that the CP Group was a partner of a Chinese weapons manufacturer. Ann McBride, then the president of Common Cause, wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno in 1997, raising questions about the CP Group's attempt to sway US policy toward China. And even the liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich observed: "We know that a hundred thousand bucks get you a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, but what did the really serious loot from conglomerates like Indonesia's Lippo Group and Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group buy from the Clinton Administration?"
The CP Group was depicted in varying degrees of nefariousness--with some justification. One-third of the people convicted in the Democratic fundraising scandal were connected to the company or the June 18 coffee. Shortly before that reception with Clinton, Kanchanalak's husband, Chupong--whom Time identified as a CP Group consultant--wired $475,000 to his mother and his sister Duangnet "Georgie" Kronenberg from Thailand. (Kronenberg would plead guilty with Pauline Kanchanalak, and Chupong Kanchanalak and his mother would be named as unindicted co-conspirators.) Later that summer, the CP Group wired $50,000 to Pauline Kanchanalak. And two weeks before the coffee, the CP Group sent $100,000 to Charlie Trie, another soon-to-be-disgraced Clinton fundraiser, according to an FBI investigation. The Cox Report cited the CP Group's payment to Trie--the purpose of which the FBI did not determine--and noted that the CP Group was involved in a telecommunications consortium controlled by companies linked to the Chinese government. That is, the report suggested that Trie and the CP Group provided a conduit for Chinese money supposedly flowing into the Clinton Administration.
But as the CP Group chased after deals and influence around the world during the nineties--joining with NYNEX, Gerber, the Ford Motor Company and Kentucky Fried Chicken in assorted projects--it did not seek out only Democrats as friends; it also collaborated with members of George W. Bush's immediate family.
In January 1994--more than two years before Chearavanont and the CP Group officials came to the White House for coffee--former President Bush made a six-day trip to China and then visited Thailand as the guest of Dhanin Chearavanont's CP Group. On January 19, the Bangkok Post ran a photograph of Bush arriving at Don Muang airport and noted in the caption that he was greeted by Chearavanont. Also, that same day, the CP Group and its telecommunications subsidiary, TelecomAsia, published a full-page ad in the Bangkok newspapers welcoming Bush. On January 20 Bush attended a champagne breakfast ceremony at the Oriental Hotel to celebrate the opening of the CP Group's new paint factory, in the wake of a licensing agreement that gave Advance Paint and Chemical, a Thai business partner of the CP Group, the right to sell Dutch Boy paints in China. That night, during a gala reception for Bush at the Oriental, also hosted by the CP Group, Bush spoke about China. He defended his decision to reject post-Tiananmen Square calls for yanking China's most-favored-nation trade status, saying, "To influence China, you do not isolate China." After Bush's three-day stay in Bangkok, Chearavanont personally escorted Bush back to the airport; a picture of this scene appeared in a Bangkok newspaper the following day.
A former Dutch Boy official says that the CP Group had hired Bush, a past US ambassador to China, to help the mega-conglomerate drum up business in Asia. "They used him, you know--'We're bringing the President in'--and, of course, everybody would look forward to meeting the President," the executive recalls. "In Asia, it's who you know...and the relationship with the former President opened a lot of doors for [the CP Group].... They were just using Bush as a business card to get in to see the right people." The former Dutch Boy executive had heard talk that the CP Group paid Bush $250,000 for his services. President Bush--who recently declared, "I am absolutely convinced that if our son is elected President of the United States, we will restore the respect, honor and decency that the White House deserves"--will not confirm or deny that payment. Regarding his relationship with the CP Group and Chearavanont, a spokesman for the former President says, "President Bush, now being a private citizen, has adopted the position that his private, personal business is just that, and he has no comment."
The Bush-Chearavanont relationship continued beyond the 1994 champagne celebration. In 1999--after China-obsessed Republicans had identified Chearavanont and the CP Group as worrisome figures possibly involved in the corruption of American democracy--Chearavanont attended the first meeting of the Asian advisory board of the Carlyle Group, a multibillion-dollar private investment firm based in Washington, which is partially managed by former members of the Reagan and Bush administrations, including James Baker, Bush's Secretary of State, and Richard Darman, Bush's former budget director. Bush, a "senior adviser" to Carlyle and a member of the company's Asian board, was the star attraction of the event, which was held at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok [see David Corn and Paul Lashmar, "Bush of Arabia," March 27].
The Bush-CP Group connection extends to Neil Bush, one of President Bush's sons, who earned notoriety when, in 1992, he agreed to pay $50,000 to settle civil litigation related to the billion-dollar collapse of the Silverado Savings & Loan Association. (Bush, who sat on the S&L's board, was accused of concealing his business relationships with two of the bank's largest debtors.) During President Bush's 1994 visit to Bangkok, the former President met with officials of TelecomAsia, the CP Group subsidiary. According to a local newspaper account, Bush and the CP Group discussed "cooperative business ventures between Thailand and the United States." Soon after, Neil Bush created the Interlink Management Corporation, an international cable communications firm, which then sought out business opportunities for US firms in China. (Neil Bush set up shop in his father's office in Houston.) By November 1996 Neil Bush, through Interlink, had established a "joint venture consulting company" with the CP Group, according to the Financial Times of London, which published no other details about the deal. At that time, Neil Bush told the Associated Press that "joining with a company like CP is the best way to go. They already have the contacts and the access that can be so difficult for a company just coming in to get."
In November 1996 Neil Bush traveled with Chearavanont to the grand opening of a CP Group motorcycle plant in Shanghai, China. Along on that trip was Pauline Kanchanalak, who five months earlier had accompanied Chearavanont to the controversial White House coffee. And the following summer--after the June 18 coffee had become news and as Republican investigators were probing the CP Group connection--Asiaweek magazine reported that Neil Bush was still working with the CP Group and recruiting partners for the multinational in the United States. He also became involved with Advance Paint and Chemical, the CP Group's partner in the paint business. A current executive of Dutch Boy, a subsidiary of Sherwin-Williams, recalls that, about 1997, Neil Bush was working with APC's managing director, Pricha Punnakitikashem. "I remember that at that time, there was something that Pricha was doing that we didn't like," the Dutch Boy executive says. "And we told Pricha to back off from doing it.... That precipitated a phone call from Neil to [the Sherwin-Williams] office in Cleveland.... Neil was trying to help Pricha." Like father, like son: Neil Bush refused to discuss his relationship with the CP Group and Chearavanont.
The CP Group also joined forces with another top Bush associate. In the fall of 1996 the transnational conglomerate was looking to spend tens of millions of dollars in Washington to create an institute that would promote closer ties between the United States and China. One of its initial hires for this project was Brent Scowcroft, who had been President Bush's National Security Adviser. According to the Washington Times, which unearthed documents detailing the proposed institute, Sumet Jiaravanon, Chearavanont's brother and a top CP Group executive, also retained Washington lobbyist Patrick Griffin, a former legislative director for President Clinton, to help launch this group. (Jiaravanon had attended the June 18 White House coffee with his brother and Pauline Kanchanalak, among others.) An American lawyer who worked on the proposal told the Washington Times that the institute deal fell through. But as part of this influence blitz, the CP Group also offered large endowments to Johns Hopkins University's Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Scowcroft and Griffin declined to talk about the aborted CP Group campaign.
The CP Group's relationship with the Bushes and other Republicans never made it onto the to-do list of the GOP's muckchasers in Congress who were looking for a Chinese scheme to gain influence in the United States. Neither the Cox inquiry nor the investigations into campaign finance irregularities conducted by Representative Dan Burton and Senator Fred Thompson examined Chearavanont's financial dealings with Republicans and the Bush family, according to a former Democratic Congressional investigator. (Cox is now one of George W. Bush's advisers on issues involving China.) Pauline and Chupong Kanchanalak, through their lawyer, refused to comment about the CP Group and the Bushes. Pauline is awaiting sentencing, and one associate who knows them says, "They have no interest in talking to the press about anything. And if they said anything about CP's business dealings, that would not be seen favorably by CP, and they may still need to maintain that relationship." Sarasin Viraphol, executive vice president of the CP Group--another attendee of the June 18, 1996, White House coffee--did not respond to a written interview request.
So parts of the Bush circle hooked up with the CP Group, which was trying to sway policy in Washington and to maintain conditions that would allow it to reap great profits in China. Like the Democrats in 1996, they were on the same team as the now-convicted Pauline Kanchanalak. A close look at the CP Group--closer than Republican scandal-hunters mounted--shows that the game of influence-peddling can be played simultaneously on different fields: Use a fundraiser to gain access to the White House, or rent a former President, cut a deal with his son and sign up his former National Security Adviser. It's usually a bipartisan endeavor. George W. Bush ought to keep that in mind and vet his own squad closely before he claims the high ground over the gang currently in power.