MoJo 400 Updates: Breaking news on the nation’s 400 biggest political contributors and what they’re getting in return.
May 27, 1997
Federal investigators believe a Beverly Hills businesswoman who ranks among the country’s top political contributors may have provided, along with her Indonesian father, the first clear evidence that the Chinese government is systematically trying to influence U.S. politics.
Jessica Elnitiarta ranked No. 329 in this year’s MoJo 400 after she personally gave $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 1996; her investment company tossed the DNC an additional $150,000. When fundraising scandals erupted, the DNC audited Elnitiarta’s donations but decided to keep them because she is a permanent U.S. resident and, the DNC says, outside auditors found her contributions to be “appropriate and legal.”
But California State Treasurer Matt Fong felt differently — last month the Republican returned $100,000 his campaign had received from Elnitiarta’s company and her father, San Wong “Ted” Sioeng, after the FBI traced the money back to the government of the People’s Republic of China.
Elnitiarta, 30, and Sioeng, 51, came under suspicion after U.S. intelligence intercepted secret Chinese communications last year and the FBI traced several 1995 wire transfers of money from Beijing, Newsweek reported this month. Some of the wired funds went to an Asian-owned bank in Los Angeles which handles the accounts of the Chinese consulate there.
A subsequent transfer — to a bank partly owned by Sioeng’s family — left funds in the account of Sioeng’s Metropolitan Hotel, which later gave Fong two checks totaling $50,000 to help pay off his 1994 election debt. Sioeng himself signed both checks even though, as his lawyer, Mark MacDougall of Washington, D.C., told Mother Jones, Sioeng is not a U.S. citizen or resident.
It is illegal for any politician in the U.S. to receive contributions from foreign sources, or for contributors to conceal the true source of the money they give to a candidate.
Elnitiarta was drawn into the investigation through another $50,000 donation to Fong, made by her Hollywood firm, Panda Estates Investment. When Fong learned of the investigation, he gave Panda Estates and Sioeng just 24 hours to verify that the money was their own; when he received no response, he promptly sent back the money.
As generous as they were to Fong, the father-daughter duo have been even kinder to the Democrats. Through her firm and in her own name, Elnitiarta gave $250,000 to the DNC in the last election, in contributions handled by former DNC fundraiser John Huang — who she called “Uncle Huang” in one internal Democratic document, according to the Los Angeles Times. At a DNC fundraiser in Los Angeles last July, Sioeng sat in one of the two seats of honor next to a grateful Bill Clinton — in the other was Indonesian James Riady.
Sioeng is out of the country, and Elnitiarta has declined comment. But in a written statement released Friday, the family’s lawyers denied that either was acting on behalf of anyone but themselves, out of their desire to support the Chinese emigré community. “These allegations have been part of a wave of unsubstantiated claims and innuendo directed at Asian-Americans who have participated freely in the political process,” the statement said.
The intercepted communications, between the Chinese government and its embassies in the U.S., outline a long-term plan to win influence and undermine the powerful Taiwan lobby, Newsweek reported. The feds believe that Beijing officials, through nearly $1 million in wire transfers to Chinese consulates in the U.S., have used intermediaries to give money to the political campaigns of up-and-coming pols who are expected to rise to national prominence.
Fong, who is planning a run for the U.S. Senate next year, is considered a rising star in Republican politics; House Speaker Newt Gingrich has asked his advice on China policy. As state treasurer he traveled to China and other Asian countries last January looking for opportunities to invest $10 billion of California’s public pension funds, according to Newsweek.
Another part of the plan was to fund Chinese-language newspapers in the U.S. in hopes of swaying public opinion. Sioeng owns one such paper in L.A., the International Daily News, which switched its stance from pro-Taiwan to pro-Beijing when he bought it last year. Elnitiarta now owns and operates it, and last year President Clinton sent Sioeng a letter praising the paper for “faithfully” reporting local and international issues. The third prong of the alleged strategy is to offer lucrative business deals on the Chinese mainland to relatives of U.S. politicians.
The 400 List:
Money & Politics