Will Gov. Locke Ever Return His Huang-Linked Funds?

Appearance matters.

Gov. Gary Locke knows this well. It's why he put his stock holdings in Washington state companies in a blind trust two years ago - to avoid questions about conflicts of interest, real or perceived, in state policy matters.

It's why he canceled a graduation address at Evergreen State College, where he would have shared joint billing with controversial death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

And it's why he returned donations from two California women linked to foreign money-laundering schemes investigated by Congress last summer.

Those donations totaled a mere $2,100 - but it was the suggestion of possible wrongdoing, not the size of the checks, that mattered.

Now John Huang, the Democratic fund-raiser who supported Locke's 1996 gubernatorial campaign at no less than eight political events across the country, has agreed to plead guilty to felony conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions. When I asked what the governor had to say about Huang's guilty plea, Locke's spokesman, Keith Love, responded tersely: "He has no comment and no interest."

This is a most peculiar stonewall of silence.

Though Huang and his wife gave token personal donations to Locke totaling a mere $1,000, Huang is no casual acquaintance of Locke or his out-of-state fund-raising staff. As reported here previously, Huang helped organize May 1996 galas involving Locke at the Mayflower Hotel and Sheraton Carlton in Washington, D.C.; three fund-raisers at restaurants in Los Angeles, and an extravaganza at the Universal City, Calif., Hilton in October 1996 that raised upwards of $30,000.

In the Washington Post, Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News, Locke steadfastly defended his Huang-linked funds. He persistently invoked the race card to deflect criticism and castigated the national media for aggressively investigating those who benefited from the fund-raising of the then-presumed-innocent-now-self-confessed-felon Huang.

At a gathering of Asian-American journalists, Locke recently lamented: "The fund-raising scandal will have repercussions for several years. It will make our efforts doubly hard to get Asian Americans appointed to top-level positions across the United States. If they have any connection to John Huang, those individuals will face greater scrutiny and their lives will be completely opened up and examined - perhaps more than usual."

Now, our outspoken governor has nothing to say.

Will Locke ever return tens of thousands of dollars in donations raised for him by Huang? Fellow Democrats Ted Kennedy and Robert Torricelli returned their Huang-solicited donations promptly to avoid even the slightest appearance of endorsing dubious campaign-finance tactics.

Will Locke ban Huang from involvement in his re-election campaign next year? Or will he still cling to a bogus ethnic solidarity line and continue to argue that responding to the scandal would unfairly insult "all" Asian Americans (never mind those of us disgusted by his stubborn alliance with a political menace)?

Does the governor still worry more about the damage to politically ambitious Asian Americans who refuse to renounce Huang than about the damage Huang did to our campaign-finance system and national security? What about the glaring appearance of foreign influence-peddling? The New York Times reported that at least one Huang-solicited contribution came from a top Chinese intelligence official.

Moreover, as the newly released Cox report states, Huang "was provided with a wealth of classified material pertaining to China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia" when he worked for the Department of Commerce from late 1993 through 1995. Locke's defenders continue to protest that it is racist to question his campaign's comfortable relationship with Huang. But don't all those with connections to Huang - Buddhist monks, Chinese intelligence officers, high-ranking trade officials and American politicians of all stripes - deserve unapologetic scrutiny?

Locke promised to return Huang's contributions if there were any "credible evidence" of wrongdoing. "I would hope that in the investigations and the inquiries that are being conducted that the truth will emerge," Locke told The Seattle Times in March 1997. It wasn't credible enough when national Democratic officials returned $1.6 million raised by Huang.

Nor was it credible when congressional and national news media investigations placed Huang at the center of the illegal Buddhist temple fund-raising debacle involving Vice President Al Gore.

Now, Huang will admit to defrauding the Federal Election Commission by causing employees of the Lippo Group, the Indonesia-based banking and real estate conglomerate with strong ties to the Chinese government, to donate $7,500 that was reimbursed by the company's headquarters in Jakarta. The money went to Los Angeles mayoral candidate Michael Woo and a fund-raising committee for the California Democratic Party and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Yet, for Gov. Locke, this, too, is apparently not credible enough evidence of Huang's threat to lawful elections and national sovereignty.

Locke may be able to dodge ethical scrutiny in his home state by retaining tight-lipped press aides and marginalizing his few critics as racists. But the empty plea for ethnic sensitivity is wearing thin. Locke's soft-on-Huang stance looks bad and smells worse with age.

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: malkin1@ix.netcom.com.