the campaign-finance scandal? For those who have forgotten their
Clinton-corruption chronology, it's the one that happened after
Whitewater and Filegate and before Lewinsky and Pardongate. It's
been out of the news for years now, so much so that in December,
when Ernest Green, an old friend of Bill Clinton's, pleaded guilty
to scandal-related tax charges, virtually no one noticed. If they
had, they would have discovered a microcosm of the scandal itself
a case in which what once appeared to be convincing evidence
of wrongdoing ended not in crusading prosecution but rather in murkiness
and minor plea-bargaining.
is widely known as a pioneer of the civil-rights movement
he was a one of the "Little Rock Nine," the first students
to desegregate Central High School in the 1950s. Green later served
in the Labor Department during the Carter administration and since
the late 1980s has been a top executive at Lehman Brothers. In the
Clinton years, he was also a big fundraiser for the Democratic party,
once making Terry McAuliffe's list of the party's top-ten supporters.
In 1997, Green
came to the attention of congressional and Justice Department campaign-finance-scandal
investigators. Prior to Clinton's reelection campaign, Green had
extensive dealings with Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, the man
who laundered tens of thousands of dollars in illegal foreign contributions
to the party. It was a relationship that investigators probed for
years but could never fully unravel. They discovered that Green
and Trie had once talked about joining in real-estate transactions.
The two men also tried to start a business selling novelty balloons
(the novelty was that the balloons inflated themselves). And according
to Democratic National Committee documents subpoenaed in the investigation,
Trie was the solicitor of a suspicious $50,000 contribution that
Green made to the party in February 1996.
which became the subject of intense scrutiny, was made at virtually
the same time that Green helped arrange for Chinese arms dealer
Wang Jun to attend a coffee at the White House with President Clinton.
Investigators suspected that the money actually came from Trie,
who used Green as a conduit to funnel another $50,000 into the Democratic
party. Looking for evidence that Trie had reimbursed Green, investigators
discovered that around the same time as the contribution, Green
made several trips to a Washington bank to make cash deposits, usually
between $1,000 and $5,000. One day he went to the bank twice, first
to deposit $3,000 in cash and then to put in $5,000, also in cash.
Another day, he went to the bank three times, to deposit $3,000,
$1,000, and then $3,000, all in cash. In all, investigators say,
Green put more than $30,000 in cash into his account between December
1995 and February 1996.
In 1997 and
1998, Green answered questions under oath three times in depositions
before both House and Senate committees investigating the scandal
(to his credit, Green did not join the "pled and fled club,"
the dozens of witnesses who pleaded the Fifth Amendment or left
the country to avoid testifying). During Green's first deposition,
before the Senate, investigators asked Green, "Did you ever
receive any money from Mr. Trie?" Green answered, "No,
I have not."
At the time,
Senate investigators did not know about the cash deposits. Later,
when House lawyers had found out about the money, they asked Green
where it came from. He told them he did not recall. They asked why
he made so many trips to put cash in the bank. He said he did not
recall. But he did testify specifically that none of the money came
from Trie or any of Trie's associates.
House investigators discovered a series of traveler's checks that
they traced to Trie. They also discovered that Trie had given two
of the checks, each for $1,000, to Green. When the investigators
showed Green evidence of the $2,000, his memory, once so fuzzy,
became quite clear.
Trie gave you these traveler's checks, is that correct?" the
House lawyer asked.
Mr. Trie give you these two traveler's checks?"
a gentlemen's bet on a basketball game."
basketball game was that?" the lawyer asked.
the Bulls playing the Bulls were playing Indiana," Green
a Sunday game. I think it was on the 18th, and the bet was that
Michael Jordan would score I bet that he would score 40 points
or better, and Charlie was not a big Michael Jordan fan, so he took
it you won this bet, is that correct?"
Green answered. "I think Michael Jordan scored 43 points."
between Green's detailed memory of the $2,000 traveler's checks
and his lack of memory of his cash bank deposits only served to
heighten investigators' suspicions. In March of 1999, House Government
Reform Committee chairman Dan Burton sent Attorney General Janet
Reno the information he had gathered about Green. "During his
depositions before this committee and the Senate," Burton wrote
Reno, "Mr. Green made several false statements regarding his
relationship with Mr. Trie which raise concerns warranting investigation."
As it turned out, the Justice Department was already investigating
Green, who had talked to prosecutors and testified before a grand
jury at about the same time he was answering questions from the
House and Senate.
finally ended last month, when Green agreed to plead guilty to not
paying taxes on $30,000 given to him by...Charlie Trie. Although
the agreement says Trie gave Green the money in connection with
a proposed business venture, there is no doubt that, contrary to
Green's under-oath assertions, Green received a significant amount
of money from Trie.
Yet the department
chose not to prosecute Green for giving false testimony or
for anything else directly related to the campaign-finance scandal.
That decision seems somewhat baffling in light of the wording of
the plea agreement, which seems to suggest that prosecutors had
significant evidence against Green. "If the Court accepts the
defendant's plea of guilty," the agreement reads:
States agrees that it will not further prosecute the defendant...for
1) offenses relating to federal campaign contributions made to
presidential candidates or presidential campaign committees...2)
offenses relating to the failure to disclose on federal tax returns
filed with the Internal Revenue Service the following income:
a) for 1995, $32,000 and for 1996, $20,000; and 3) offenses...relating
to defendant's testimony and statements: provided to Congress
on June 18, 1997, December 17, 1997, and September 25, 1998; provided
to the grand jury on January 28, 1998; and provided to the United
States on February 20, 1997 and January 7, 1998.
With so many
specific problems with Green's actions, why did the department choose
to walk away? Most likely because a prosecution would have been
long, difficult, and quite possibly unsuccessful. "It's the
best they [prosecutors] were going to get," says one congressional
source. "The absolutists of the world will criticize this,
but the fact is that in the real world this case would have been
tried in the District of Columbia [where Green is widely admired].
There's no way a jury would have convicted him, and it's just murky
enough that he could make a credible case that the money wasn't
for contributions but for business deals. So the prosecutors said,
'Let's get what we can out of this guy, or otherwise we're going
to get nothing.'"
And that is
the end of the Ernest Green story. And in some ways, it seems to
be the story of the campaign-finance scandal itself. While the evidence
of illegal contributions seemed clear enough, the combination of
an uninterested Clinton Justice Department, uncooperative witnesses,
and sometimes murky financial transactions made it difficult to
prove in court what seemed so obvious: that there was a wide-ranging
scheme, originating at the highest levels of the Clinton administration,
to bring large amounts of illegal foreign money into Democratic
campaign coffers. In today's world, it all seems quite distant and
irrelevant, but the details of the Green case remind us that it
was serious stuff, and that Republicans were right to pursue the
investigation even when few others seemed interested.