Man In The Middle Of Donorgate

Was Ted Sioeng funneling money or just doing business?

Ted Sioeng had arrived. On the evening of July 22, 1996, he sat proudly beside Bill Clinton in the glitzy ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles at a dinner that raised $800,000 in campaign donations. For Sioeng--an Indonesian businessman who began life in an orphanage and whose limited English made small talk with Clinton difficult--what was a night to remember is now part of a nightmare he'd like to forget.

Sioeng (pronounced shong), 52, a multimillionaire who made a fortune selling used factory equipment in China and exporting Chinese cigarettes to the West, finds himself at the center of Donorgate. According to sources familiar with both Justice Dept. and Senate Governmental Affairs Committee probes into whether Beijing attempted to influence last year's elections, Sioeng could be a linchpin in the scandal. He and his daughter Jessica Elnitiarta have given about $400,000 to politicians since 1995, the bulk of it to Democrats. And some of those donations allegedly coincided with large wire transfers from the Bank of China to their U.S. bank accounts.

Is Ted Sioeng the key to Donorgate? Or is he simply a flamboyant entrepreneur doing business in America the way he does business in Asia--using his wealth to boost political connections. Through their lawyers, Mark J. MacDougall and Steven R. Ross of Washington, Sioeng and Elnitiarta deny that Beijing was behind any of their contributions or that they ever acted on China's behalf.

This much is known: Intercepts of conversations indicate that top Chinese officials discussed ways to influence U.S. politicians and may even have mentioned people friendly to Beijing who might be enlisted in the effort. MacDougall says he wouldn't be surprised if Chinese diplomats raised Sioeng's name--he is also called Sioeng San Wong--because he is pro-China.

Sioeng, who declined to be interviewed, is not a permanent U.S. resident--his passport is from Belize--but his wife and children are. He has not been seen in the U.S. since winter and is believed to be living in Hong Kong.

Sioeng's views on China are more emotional than political, say friends. He is not an ethnic Chinese but was raised in Indonesia by a Chinese couple. Ideologically, he appears to be a free-market capitalist. Sioeng became wealthy in his 20s by selling foam rubber padding in Indonesia. And he was among the first to recognize that money could be made in a newly opened China in the 1970s.

First, Sioeng sold used cigarette-manufacturing equipment to co-ops in the southern province of Yunnan. Later, he moved on to used medical and toy-making equipment. He also endeared himself to the provincial government by donating money to build schools, hospitals, and roads. In return, Yunnan officials granted him a license to sell the popular Hongtashan brand of cigarettes--called Red Pagoda Mountain in the U.S.--outside of China. The wire transfers he receives from the Bank of China, according to a source familiar with the transactions, are quarterly dividends from his cigarette joint venture, a dollar-based business.

Despite his affection for China, Sioeng seems crazy about the U.S. He is known to wear ties imprinted with the Statue of Liberty, and friends say he became so enamored of America that he decided to raise his five children here. His wife obtained a visa through an immigration lottery, and in 1987, the family moved to Los Angeles. Sioeng stayed behind to take care of business but made frequent extended visits.

His eldest child, Jessica Elnitiarta--she uses her mother's maiden name--heads the family interests in California and is the sole shareholder of Panda Estates Investment Inc. Panda holdings include two Hollywood hotels and a 24-unit luxury condo in Beverly Hills. The properties are worth some $25 million and the condo alone produces nearly $1 million in annual pretax profit, according to Sioeng's lawyers. This means Elnitiarta, 31, easily could have made political donations out of her own pocket. "The amount of money they gave was not a big deal to them," says a friend.

Sioeng's most visible asset is the International Daily News, a Chinese-language newspaper in Monterey Park. Formerly pro-Taiwan, the paper today is pro-China, some readers say, because it runs releases issued by Beijing news agencies. But Jamie Lim, deputy general manager, says Sioeng isn't around enough to influence its content.

DEEP POCKET. Sioeng often donated money to Asian-American groups, and his generosity to Iowa Wesleyan College was recognized with an honorary doctorate. Inevitably, pols began to view Dr. Sioeng, as he sometimes calls himself, as a deep pocket, too. California State Treasurer Matt Fong, a Republican, was among the first to come calling. Fong, now running for a U.S. Senate seat, received $100,000 from Sioeng and Elnitiarta in 1995. When reports suggested the money came from China, he returned it.

Others familiar with Sioeng's giving say they don't see China behind the donations. Fong aggressively solicited Sioeng after his 1994 treasurer's race, they say. And Fong concedes that he went to Sioeng's office "no more than 10 times" seeking money. Sioeng has told friends he gave Fong $50,000 because he was weary of his pleas. Fong even helped him write the check because of Sioeng's difficulty with English.

Fong also arranged for Sioeng to meet House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, though Sioeng didn't know who Gingrich was. A week later, a Gingrich aide asked Elnitiarta to donate $50,000 to the National Policy Forum (NPF). Critics say the GOP think tank was a Republican National Committee subsidiary that raised questionable foreign money. Some Democrats have alleged that Elnitiarta's $50,000 check, for example, was covered by a Bank of China wire transfer made the previous day. Lawyer MacDougall denies this. Elnitiarta gave the money, says a friend, because she was told the NPF would hold an event at her hotel. It never did.

Soon, Sioeng's largesse caught the eye of Democratic fund-raiser John Huang. He invited Sioeng and Elnitiarta to his maiden event as a DNC fund-raiser in February, 1996, and to the now infamous April, 1996, Buddhist Temple lunch with Vice-President Al Gore.

It was also Huang who invited Sioeng to the Century Plaza fund-raiser. A Democratic source says Huang's practice by this time was to solicit wealthy Asian Americans to buy entire tables so they could impress foreign guests with their White House connections. Elnitiarta gave $250,000 altogether, and this enabled Sioeng to invite associates from mainland China to three DNC events. The DNC has kept Elnitiarta's donations, which are legal because she's a permanent U.S. resident. If nothing else, she and her father have learned that a few hundred thousand dollars can buy plenty of political connections--and a whole lot of grief--in America.