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Chinese officials’ visit intensifies interest in Phoenix firm

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Congressional investigators say they will step up their investigation of a Chinese government-owned conglomerate after two Chinese Embassy officials visited Capitol Hill to urge an end to the inquiry.

The House Government Reform Committee is investigating whether a Phoenix-based subsidiary of the company made improper gifts to Charles Parish, a former State Department officer in charge of issuing visas at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 1994 to 1996. Two officials in the Chinese Embassy’s commercial office visited committee investigators last month to discuss the probe, an offshoot of an investigation into illegal campaign contributions.

”The main thing the people at the Chinese Embassy accomplished by visiting us was to raise our antennae and make us wonder why they visited,” said Kevin Binger, the committee’s Republican staff director. ”I think they hoped they could come in and squelch that part of our investigation, but in reality they just made us all the more interested.”

A July panel report alleged that Elizabeth Mann, who heads BNU, the Phoenix-based subsidiary of the Chinese company called COFCO, gave gifts and free luxury lodging to Parish ”as a way of ensuring that COFCO officials received visas.” COFCO is the China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Import and Export Corp.

The committee recently subpoenaed BNU and Mann, seeking more documents.

Mann, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in China, has denied wrongdoing. BNU owns a $90 million Chinese cultural center in Phoenix, manages real estate in the West, makes automobile loans and imports shoes from factories in China.

Parish, who also has denied wrongdoing, retired from the State Department after an internal probe cleared him of criminal misconduct.

Late last month, two Chinese Embassy officials asked to meet with committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., and were referred to two investigators. The officials – Shi Jianxin, head of the embassy’s commercial affairs office, and Ci Bin, first secretary of that office – told investigators the probe risked harming relations with China and COFCO, a major grain importer, Binger said.

”I’ve worked on Capitol Hill for 15 years, and I’ve never heard of a diplomat coming in and trying to squelch a congressional investigation,” Binger said.

Ci disputed Binger’s characterization of the Sept. 23 meeting, which was first reported by The Arizona Republic last week.

”We talked friendly. Then someone says it’s illegal, improper? No, it wasn’t,” Ci said in a telephone interview.

Embassy officials of all countries often work to help their citizens and companies, but sending such officials to the House committee to discuss the investigation seems ”a little odd,” said Bates Gill, a China expert at the Brookings Institution.

”They knew that going up there in this environment would not be easy,” Gill said. ”They must have made the decision that it was important enough to try anyway.”

The committee began looking into Mann and BNU in connection with its probe of illegal campaign fund raising.

Former Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung told the committee in May that Parish helped get visas for Chung’s associates, and an executive of a Chinese beer company asked Chung to give Parish ”a shopping bag of money.”

The committee’s July report said Jianwei ”Jay” Ding, a former BNU executive, told the panel that Mann gave Parish several gifts and let him stay for free at company-owned condominiums in California and Nevada.

”We just wanted him (Parish) to visit our company, that’s it,” Mann told The Republic earlier this year. Her lawyer, Charles Conroy, said in July that the panel’s report was ”filled with inaccuracies” and that COFCO and BNU ”would have no reason whatsoever to obtain visas . . . other than through completely legal channels.”

Calls to Mann for comment this week were referred first to Conroy’s New York office, and from there to attorney Joe Linklater in Chicago, who did not respond to four telephone messages.

Parish declined to testify to the House committee in July, citing his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

Binger said Ci and Shi, in their visit with committee investigators, portrayed Ding as a disgruntled former employee who had stolen from COFCO, drove two luxury cars and lived in an expensive house.

Ding’s lawyer, Richard Neuheisel, said Ding did not steal from BNU and has not found steady work since being fired in 1996 after challenging a proposed real estate deal engineered by Mann. Ding lives in a shabby two-bedroom apartment, drives a Toyota Corolla and delivers newspapers for a living, Neuheisel said.

”The guy’s on poverty row. It’s hand to mouth,” Neuheisel said.

Ding, a Chinese citizen, has applied for political asylum, saying he fears he could be jailed, tortured or killed if he returns to China.

”Given the fact that we’ve had people from the embassy make a special trip up here just to talk about Jay Ding makes us concerned about his safety,” Binger said.

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