Ron Brown's documents lie a moldering in the landfill....

I'm into Clinton nostalgia lately, and I hope readers will indulge me, because the patterns in the recent campaign scandals are so similar to the old scandals that it's downright spooky. I mean, check this out this vintage Washington Post piece from 1997:

The exploits of indefatigable Clinton bag man Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie produced the hit of the week at last week's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings on campaign finance. Mr. Trie in early 1996 had temporarily shifted his attention from the president's reelection campaign to his legal defense fund. He had showed up once with a brown envelope containing $460,000 in $1,000 contributions, some on sequentially numbered money orders made out in different names but the same handwriting.
Bundling? I'll skip over most of the details, but the scandals led to calls for "reform":
Mr. Trie's role as a conduit for campaign contributions seems to have been well known. An agricultural cooperative in Thailand wired him $100,000 a couple of weeks before two of its executives were to meet the president at a White House coffee. At least half the money was converted to cash shortly afterward; what happened to it next is unclear. The coffee was arranged by DNC fund-raiser John Huang and a businesswoman, Pauline Kanchanalak, who was the co-op's U. S. representative and herself a major Clinton campaign contributor. Some if not all of her contributions have been returned by the DNC because of questions about their source.

Before Congress left town last week, the principal Senate sponsors of a campaign finance reform bill warned that, if the Republican leadership continued to refuse to give the bill floor time, they would start in September to tie up the Senate and force consideration by offering it as an amendment to other legislation. The president, whose own abuses of the campaign finance law are part of the rationale for the legislation, joined them in the call. Once again he converts his own record of misconduct into an agenda.

It's time, past time, that Congress begin to clean up this system that has been so cynically exploited by all, and in particular by this White House. The ease with which money flows now into campaigns - the ways in which candidates have come to slurp up every bit they can, from whatever source, no questions asked and obvious implications ignored - needs no additional documentation. The Trie hearings are a vivid example, but only the latest in a long string.

And now that Congress has cleaned it up, it'll never happen again, right?

Anyone still remember Commerce Secretary Ron Brown -- whose death has been described as saving the Clinton Administration? I'm not interested in conspiracy theories over his death, as things like that make little difference. It's like the Vince Foster conspiracy theories; what I always wanted to know about was what was in his hard drive, not which way some crackpot said the blood ran, or whether X-rays were "missing." There were no criminal cases, and there never will be, so worrying about dead bodies strikes me as silly. Documents, however, are another matter, because they speak for themselves. They don't commit suicide or die of natural causes, and hard drives cannot accidentally destroy themselves. Bodies decompose, but documents are forever!

At least, they're supposed to be. When documents die, it's inherently more suspicious than when people die, because there isn't as much room for ambiguity.

To continue this exercise in nostalgia from a decade ago, Ron Brown was annoyed that the financial shenanigans of the Clintons had turned him into a peddler of trade mission seats:

Hill painted a picture of her friend Brown as furious with the White House, and especially first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instigating the plan. "I'm not a [mother-expletive deleted] tour guide for Hillary," Brown complained privately to Hill, according to her account.

Brown's business associate also testified that toward the end of his life the Commerce secretary had said he was just "doing my chores for Hillary Rodham Clinton." Hill further said Brown resented the first lady and the "Arkansas crowd" of insiders for perverting the trade missions, with the apparent blessing of the president himself.

Hill said of Brown: "Ultimately, he believed the president of the United States was at least tangentially involved."

Brown was killed when the government plane carrying one of his international trade missions crashed into a mountainside in Croatia in 1996.

Hill portrayed Brown as fearing he was an outsider in the Clinton Administration, despite his ties to the president while serving as head of the Democratic National Committee.

"He never felt he had that strong a position and he was always worried," Hill said. Hill claimed Brown had privately complained that he was also racially "demeaned by that Arkansas crowd."

Hill said Brown once showed her a stack of documents on Commerce Department letterhead suggesting to contributors their gifts could help win trade mission seats. She said Brown was furious that one his aides had written the letters. "He knew it was not right," Hill testified. She said she urged Brown not to destroy the documents because an independent counsel was investigating and it would be seen as obstruction of justice. "I told him it was a great risk because surely they existed someplace else," she said.

Hill testified, often grudgingly, under prodding by staunch administration critic Larry Klayman. The head of a group named Judicial Watch, Klayman called Hill to testify in his lawsuit to force the Commerce Department to release documents which he claims will confirm the sale of the trade mission seats for campaign gifts of $50,000 or more.

Using the FOIA, Judicial Watch tried and tried to get the documents, but the untimely and tragic death of Ron Brown seems to have triggered a massive shredding campaign. The coverup was so egregious that it upset U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth (who presided over the Judicial Watch litigation). In a strongly worded Memorandum Opinion, Judge Lamberth excoriated the conduct of Commerce Department officials. It's a very long opinion, but the Wall Street Journal commented on a few gems:
....not much of anyone in Washington beyond a few reporters seems to have noticed that on December 22 a federal district judge denounced the behavior of a group of Clintonesque former Commerce Department officials as akin to "hooligans" and "scofflaws." What's more, he said the department's handling of a lawsuit over the late Ron Brown's trade junkets has been so untrustworthy that he is appointing a special magistrate to keep an eye on them.

Judge Royce Lamberth found that the facts "strongly substantiate the claim that the agency was deliberately destroying and jettisoning documents," ending "in a flurry of document shredding" in Secretary Brown's office after his death in Bosnia in April 1996. He describes the department's four years of legal stonewalling as an "egregious . . . disregard for the law."

Again, one must ponder the Beltway's apparently eternal mysteries: Does anyone connect the dots down there anymore, or do all the capital's solons and scribes really believe the whole issue is just Bill Clinton's pattycake habits?

The scandal was called "Commercegate" -- and there's still a Wiki entry, but you better look fast, as the title is now being disputed by Media Matters some of the Wiki editors. However, there's another entry here which still quotes Judge Lamberth:
"No adequate explanation has been given as to why these documents were destroyed." Furthermore, the judge said: "[the Department's] misconduct in this case is so egregious and so extensive that... the agency [should be held] fully accountable for the serious violations that it appears to have deliberately committed".
It strikes me that one way of ensuring accountability might be to not reelect the people who presided over the lack thereof.

Especially if they're resistant to the reforms inspired by their original conduct.

Enough nostalgia. I should get with the real world of today.

UPDATE: The Washington Post is waxing nostalgically too, about "An Unwelcome Echo."


Some clever candidate ought to reecho this book and title it "A Choice, not an Unwelcome Echo."

MORE: I do not mean to suggest that everyone who expresses skepticism about the official conclusions regarding the Foster death is a crackpot. Some are, some aren't. (My apologies to anyone who took that characterization personally. If it's any consolation, I often refer to myself as a crackpot.)

posted by Eric on 09.13.07 at 09:45 AM


"Bodies decompose, but documents are forever!"

Oh, man. That's rich. Waitaminnit... let's try that on for size as a principle.

"Katyn Forest". Yum.

Did you ever study the Vince Foster case, Eric? What, exactly, is a "crackpot" in your world?

Billy Beck   ·  September 13, 2007 10:51 AM

I studied the Foster case, and concluded that it's a waste of time. They ought to focus on the documents. There's still no answer with regard to Vincent Foster's hard drive, yet people argue over things which will never be known. The bodies of Foster and Brown prove only that they are dead.

Regarding Katyn, the bodies were found in 1943, but what finally established Soviet guilt was not the bodies (which had been shot in the head with German Walthers), but Soviet documents.

Bodies merely establish death. No one disputes that Foster and Brown are dead, but I think it is foolish to imagine that murder investigations will ever be opened. Regardless of which way someone said the blood ran, whether X-rays should have been taken, etc. (Those things are the stuff of numerous and conflicting conspiracy theories.)

As a practical matter, documents are easier to examine than bodies, as well as freely shareable.

Eric Scheie   ·  September 13, 2007 12:12 PM

I don't look for more investigations, Eric. I've bloody had 'em up-to-here.

And that's exactly why I know better than to sneer-off those two cases.

Billy Beck   ·  September 13, 2007 4:10 PM

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