Michael Brown Goes Free

Article excerpt

September 29 was a beautiful day at Lowes Island country club in Sterling, Virginia. The sky was sunny, there was a pleasant breeze, and the golf course's immaculate fairways hadn't suffered too much from the steady rain of the previous twenty-four hours. It was a big day at Lowes Island; the club was hosting the second annual Ronald H. Brown Memorial Golf Tournament. Several government officials came to play, as did lots of corporate bigwigs-and to top it off, Bill Clinton himself had agreed to show up for eighteen holes in the afternoon.

The president seemed in good spirits as he walked to the first tee. Sporting a bright red Stanford University cap in honor of his daughter's recent college choice, he kept a running conversation with playing partners Michael Brown, son of the late Ron Brown, and William Daley, the man who succeeded Brown as secretary of commerce. As usual, the press was not allowed to follow the president beyond the first hole, but it appeared that everyone enjoyed the round. And Clinton's presence no doubt helped raise a lot of money for the tournament's beneficiary, the Ronald H. Brown Memorial Foundation.

The pictures of Michael Brown playing golf with the president were far different from photos of Brown that had appeared in newspapers a month earlier. In those, he was seen walking out of the United States courthouse in Washington after pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws. Brown admitted funneling illegal contributions to Senator Ted Kennedy's 1994 re-election campaign. Compared to other illegal donations uncovered in the ongoing campaign finance scandal, Brown's transgressions appeared smalltime: after making the legal maximum $2,ooo contribution to Kennedy in his own name, Brown then arranged to reimburse two other people who had agreed to make additional $2,ooo contributions in their own names.

The Justice Department could have pursued felony charges against Brown, but prosecutor Raymond Hulser chose instead to charge Brown with a misdemeanor. "This case does not involve a large amount of contributions," Hulser said in explaining his decision. "We were looking to do what's right as to his conduct and the amount of money involved." The misdemeanor charge, Hulser added, was "a very fair and appropriate resolution" of the case. Sentencing was set for November 21.

Brown did not speak to reporters as he left the court house. In a one-paragraph statement given out by his lawyer, he scarcely mentioned his wrong doing. "I have today..taken personal responsibility for a single misdemeanor violation of a provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act," he began. Brown called his action a "mistake" before going on to invoke the memory of his father, who died last year in a plane crash in Croatia. "It is my sincere hope that my family and I can move forward and put the tragedy of the last year fully behind us," Brown said, "and I can pursue important personal objectivescauses which meant a great deal to my father and continue to mean a great deal to my family and me."

Brown's guilty plea wasn't exactly front-page news; after all, the charge was a misdemeanor. But there was a much larger story in the plea agreement, one that most reporters either missed or decided not to emphasize. In making the plea deal, the Justice Department agreed to close the book on an extensive investigation into several large and questionable payments made to Michael Brown by Gene and Nora Lum, a couple of Democratic fundraisers who sought favor with Brown's father.

At the time of Ron Brown's death, an independent counsel was gathering evidence that might have led not only to charges against Ron Brown but also to charges that Michael Brown was a conduit for illegal money paid to his father by the Lums. Ron Brown's death brought the independent counsel investigation to an end, and the case against Michael Brown was transferred to the Justice Department. And now the Justice Department has decided not to pursue the matter any further. …