On the wall of Hsiao Yen Wang’s apartment, a cramped, 17th-floor public housing unit on the city’s Lower East Side, are photographs of her husband, David Guo, a cook who specializes in Fujian cuisine.
One photo stands out: Guo shaking Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hand, a memento from a $1,000-a-person fundraiser for the New York senator held in New York’s Chinatown last April.
Last week, Wang got another memento — a calling card from a Justice Department criminal investigator. The investigator asked Wang if she was coerced into giving money to the campaign and whether she knew of anybody else who may have been forced to contribute.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Wang said she and her husband had given willingly and that she knew of no coercion. A Justice Department spokeswoman would not comment on the inquiries.
“I want to see her become the first female U.S. president,” Wang, a hospital worker, said of Clinton as her daughter translated.
Still, less than three weeks after the April 9 fundraiser, the Clinton campaign’s vetting operation had flagged the check and returned it. Wang’s contribution, delivered by Guo, was one of a handful obtained at the Chinatown event that the campaign turned back, citing an “abundance of caution.”
Clinton has tapped a vein of support among ethnic, minority and immigrant communities with vigorous outreach that has helped her become one of the best-financed candidates in the presidential field. Under federal law, donors do not have to be citizens to contribute but must be in the United States legally.
The April fundraiser, held in Chinatown’s Golden Bridge Restaurant, illustrates both the pitfalls and the success Clinton has experienced with her fundraising operation.
The event attracted nearly 300 donors from as far away as Maryland. Shortly after, about $380,000 poured into the Clinton campaign from attendees and their families. Many were owners or managers of other restaurants. Among the rest were lawyers, business owners, real estate agents and artists.
According to reports filed by the Clinton campaign with the Federal Election Commission, seven donors identified themselves as cooks, three as chefs, three as servers, two as cashiers, one as a dishwasher and cook and one as a waiter.
Details of the event were first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
FEC records show that the campaign returned at least $8,000 in checks to at least eight donors, most of them at the end of June. Among those donors were four identified as cooks and one as a cashier. The campaign also returned $4,600 to a donor who appeared to have earlier given the maximum allowed by law.
The campaign appears to have missed some others.
In one small store, a woman said she donated to the Clinton campaign but didn’t have citizenship or a green card. A man living in a Brooklyn boarding house who identified himself as an artist said he also gave $1,000, but said he, too, has no citizenship and no green card.
Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said in an e-mail response to the AP that all donors are asked to fill out cards that state they must be citizens or green card holders. “Is it possible that out of more than 200,000 donors, two may not be? It is,” he said. “Of course we would refund any such contributions.”
The Associated Press conducted a spot check of 44 addresses listed in campaign finance documents as belonging to donors at the April 9 fundraiser. All the addresses checked out and reporters spoke to 19 persons who said they donated.
One address was a mahjong parlor. At another, a donor identified as a cashier could not be found, and the building superintendent said he had not heard of the person. Associates of some people listed as donors said they were in China and could not be contacted. Others did not return messages left with families.
Chung Seto, the organizer of the Chinatown event, said Chinese have a culture of thrift and it wouldn’t be surprising for workers with meager wages to make $1,000 donations. She said donors stood in line for up to three hours waiting for the fundraising event to begin. Any mistakes in vetting contributors, she said, were a result of enthusiasm, not coercion.
“Some people were very eager, and some were overeager,” she said in an interview, acknowledging the returned checks.
Seto, an activist in the Chinese-American community and a former executive director of the New York Democratic Party, said Chinatown residents hold Clinton in special esteem. They particularly remember her help during the economic downturn that hit the lower Manhattan neighborhood after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The attention to the Chinatown fundraiser comes a month after the Clinton camp returned more than $800,000 to donors whose contributions were linked to Norman Hsu, who has been accused in a federal investigation of bilking investors and using some of his profits to make illegal donations to political campaigns. None of those returned contributions appear to have originated at the Chinatown fundraiser, and Seto said Hsu played no role in the event.
Seto voiced frustration that Hsu, who is a native of Hong Kong, and the Chinatown fundraising event in New York have cast the Chinese community in a negative light. She stressed that Hsu operated in different circles and that few people in Chinatown knew him.
“If there are people who ought not to have given, then we should refund the money,” Seto said. “But we should not just categorically scrutinize this community.”
The fundraising event offers a glimpse into the tightly knit Chinese immigrant community, which is organized by family and social associations. Seto said she relied on association leaders to spread the word and get members to attend the event.
One was Jimmy Cheng, a leader in Chinatown’s Fujian community. He displayed a business card that identified him as general manager of the East Market Restaurant, vice president executive director of the American Chinese Voters Alliance Corp., vice president of the United Fujianese American Association, president of the Continental Garment Manufacturing Association, CEO of the Fu Jian Star Inc. and co-chair of New York Chinese Americans for Hillary Clinton.
“I’m not scared,” he said. “We don’t do anything wrong.”
According to Cheng’s business card, his e-mail address is SKCheng. The Clinton campaign lists donations of $1,000 in the names of Jimmy Cheng, Shin Kan Cheng, Shin K Cheng and Shih Kan Chang, all received on April 17. Donors can give up to $4,600, with $2,300 designated for the primary and another $2,300 for the general election.
After initially speaking to a reporter, Cheng declined to be interviewed and did not reply to e-mail messages. Cheng’s brother, Shimin Zheng, also helped put together the fundraising event, according to people who attended.
Wolfson, with the Clinton campaign, said the contributions were received as four separate credit card donations.
“At the time last April, based on the handwriting received, the committee concluded that these were four separate contributors and reported them as such,” he said. “If upon review, it turns out that these four contributions were from the same individual, the committee will take appropriate steps to correct its reports.”
A sign promoting the event still hangs on a wall at Cheng’s East Market Restaurant. It warns that those wanting to attend must be U.S. citizens or hold green cards.
“If you come, you may have the opportunity to shake her hand and take a picture with her,” it reads. “This is a very good opportunity. You can’t miss it.”
Indeed, photographs of donors with Clinton are popular in Chinatown.
On a wall of Deguang Pan’s Precise Dental Art office, tucked away on the fourth floor of a building on one of Chinatown’s bustling blocks, is a photograph, taken at the fundraiser, of Clinton and Pan against a false backdrop of the U.S. Capitol.
His brother, Desheng Pan, has a similar photo in his dental office across the street. He attended the same fundraiser. A relative who helped put together the event told them about it, the brothers said.
In midtown Manhattan, a photograph of Bill Clinton hangs inside a massage parlor called Green Qi Gong Tui-Na, which boasts “The Best Chinese Massage.” The general manager, Guosui Huang, who has a green card, said she attended the April 9 fundraiser after seeing an advertisement in the local Chinese newspaper, World Journal. She, too, gave $1,000, she said.
Deguang Pan, who speaks only a few words in English, said he’s not a U.S. citizen but has a green card. He said he is interested in American politics and paid the $1,000 donation with his credit card.
“I like Hillary,” he said through a translator as he stepped away from a patient whose mouth was agape.
Adam Goldman reported from New York and Jim Kuhnhenn reported from Washington.