Part 2: Silence On Locke's Campaign Ties Is Deafening

THOUSANDS of well-wishers will fete Gov.-elect Gary Locke tomorrow at an inaugural gala in Olympia, among them a coterie of the state's media elite. Party organizers can almost certainly count on these Friends of Gary to check their probing instincts politely at the door. After all, no one wants to be a party pooper at the inaugural celebration of the nation's first mainland Asian-American governor.

Too bad. Last week, this column broke news of Locke's campaign ties to Thai businesswoman Pauline Kanchanalak and raised still unanswered questions about his connection to former Democratic National Committee fund-raiser John Huang. Locke accepted checks totaling $1,000 from Huang and his wife, and another $1,000 from "P. Kanchanalak"; he also accepted an estimated $30,000 raised at a Los Angeles fund-raiser co-sponsored by Huang.

The national press has uncovered alarming evidence of alleged influence peddling and money laundering by Kanchanalak and Huang at the White House. Even some of the Clinton administration's fans, such as the New York Times, have been highly critical of the DNC's fund-raising techniques. As a result of media pressure to come clean, more than $1.2 million raised by Huang, including $253,000 solicited from Kanchanalak, has been returned by the DNC.

In our own backyard, by contrast, the silence with regard to the Locke-Huang-Kanchanalak connection is deafening.

Why? One state political reporter curtly informed me late last week that "contributions from foreign nationals aren't illegal in Washington." That might explain the media's reticence - if it were true. But the law says otherwise. Section 441 of the Federal Election Campaign Act states: "It shall be unlawful for a foreign national to make any contributions of money . . . to any political office" or "for any person to solicit, accept, or receive any such contribution from a foreign national (emphasis added)." In 1989, the U.S. Attorney General clarified that the ban applied to elections at all levels - federal, state and local.

Elsewhere in the country, the news media have pounced on evidence of foreign influence in state elections. In 1992, the Kansas City Star broke news of an illegal donation by a British business owner to a Missouri gubernatorial candidate that led to FEC fines totaling $24,000.

In 1994, after dogged investigative work by the Honolulu Advertiser, the FEC levied record fines of $162,225 on Japanese foreign nationals and firms who gave illegal contributions to gubernatorial, mayoral and congressional candidates in Hawaii.

And last fall, the St. Petersburg Times reported that the state Democratic Party of Florida had received $35,000 from Pauline Kanchanalak - as well as $25,000 from someone named Duangnet G. Kronenberg, who lists the same McLean, Va., address as Kanchanalak and says she is a homemaker.

Let's be clear. Both Huang and Kanchanalak are foreign citizens with legal permanent resident status in the U.S. A loophole in the FEC law does allow this small subset of foreign nationals to make campaign contributions at all levels. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Huang illegally solicited money for Locke in Los Angeles from foreign nationals who are not legal permanent residents - as he allegedly did for the DNC; and whether Kanchanalak lied about the actual source of her contribution.

Kanchanalak insists her mother-in-law, also a permanent legal resident of the U.S. with Thai citizenship, contributed the money to the DNC and to Locke. But the DNC determined that Kanchanalak deceived them; she may have deceived Locke as well and broken state law that prohibits false representations of the true source of campaign donations.

Even if the contributions are eventually shown to be within the law, since when did the press hold off on covering matters of campaign ethics until the legality of alleged improprieties was formally assessed? Certainly not with Newt Gingrich. Or with GOP gubernatorial candidate Dale Foreman, whose alleged campaign-finance violations involving a political action committee were well-publicized last summer, but were determined to be legal by the Public Disclosure Commission in September.

As Foreman's detractors are fond of noting, proving something legal doesn't always make it right.

A friend tells me that Locke is the most ethical governor ever elected in Washington state. But sometimes inaction speaks louder than words. In a trade-dependent state such as Washington, the incentive to engage in quid pro quos is high. What better way to insulate the governor's mansion from unethical "quos" than to prevent pros like Huang and Kanchanalak from offering "quids" in the first place? Yet, no such announcement denying Huang and Kanchanalak access to Olympia has been made. Their money is welcome, and presumably their presence will be, too.

According to a recent Harris Poll, two out of three respondents said the media needed to a better job of protecting "the public from abuses of power." Over two-thirds wanted the facts - rather than the journalist's judgment calls - in stories involving public figures. The persistent absence of this story from the front pages of our local newspapers is exactly the kind of lousy judgment call that leads the public to perceive journalists not as guarantors of truth, but as exalted stenographers seated at the right hand of power.

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: