A former business partner of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown says presidential aides directed the withholding of documents detailing a scheme to sell trade mission slots for $50,000 apiece in campaign donations.
Nolanda Hill, who has been indicted, said in court Monday that in early 1996 she saw a 1-inch-thick packet of Commerce Department letters that linked donations and trade mission slots.Brown raised the possibility of destroying the documents and said then-White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and then-staff secretary John Podesta instructed that the material be withheld from a private group, Judicial Watch, which had sued to find out whether trade mission slots were being allocated on the basis of political contributions.
Hill and Brown were in business together, and she is under indictment for allegedly conspiring to divert hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies she controlled to her partner. Though not named in the indictment, Hill's partner in the company was Brown.
White House spokesman James Kennedy denied the accusations, saying: "Ms. Hill's allegations regarding Leon Panetta and John Podesta and the White House are false in every respect."
Podesta, now deputy chief of staff, commented, "The only thing accurate in Ms. Hill's affidavit with respect to me and my conduct is the spelling of my name."
Testifying in U.S. District Court in the civil case dating back to 1994, Hill said she was told by Brown that Panetta's strategy regarding the documents was to "stall, stall, stall."
Hill said the five or six documents she reviewed in the 1-inch-thick packet of papers were written by Democratic National Com-mittee fund-raiser Melissa Moss.
Hill said she was in a room at the Watergate in Washington when Brown pulled from an ostrich-skin bag letters Moss had written to companies linking donations and trade mission slots.
Hill said Brown used profanity in describing how Moss had written such letters, apparently without his knowledge.
Hill said Moss and President Clinton know each other - that Hill saw Clinton with his arm around Moss talking to her at a party at the home of the late Democratic patron Pamela Harriman.
In videotaped segments of her testimony in the lawsuit given in 1996, Moss acknowledged knowing Clinton. She categorically denied ever having linked trade mission slots to donations.
In an affidavit released at the start of the court session, Hill said: "I became aware, through my discussions with Ron, that the trade missions were being used as a fund-raising tool for the upcoming Clinton-Gore presidential campaign and the Democratic Party.
"Ron told me that domestic companies were being solicited to donate large sums of money in exchange for their selection to participate on trade missions of the Commerce Department," Hill's affidavit stated.
"Ron expressed to me his displeasure that the purpose of the Commerce trade missions had been and were being perverted at the direction of the White House," she added.