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Congress Probes a Sasser Business Deal

James Sasser, the US ambassador to China, was questioned Tuesday by a House subcommittee about a $1 million payment he received from a Tennessee real estate developer.

The House Commerce investigative subcommittee is probing whether Mr. Sasser and former Clinton campaign manager Peter Knight improperly accepted $1 million each from developer Franklin Haney for allegedly helping to land the Federal Communications Commission as a tenant for the Portals office building in Washington.

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But Sasser, a former Democratic senator from Tennessee, said the money was not paid as a fee for obtaining the FCC as a tenant.

Rather, Sasser testified, he gave advice on how to finance the project. "I was not paid a contingent fee to secure a government lease on the Portals project," Sasser told the lawmakers.

"I did not exercise any improper influence for Mr. Haney or anyone else on either the Portals project or any other project, ever," he added.

Sasser, who lost his Senate seat in 1994, received the money in 1996, shortly after he was sworn in as the top US diplomat in Beijing. He disclosed the payment on his ethics report.

Mr. Knight previously testified that he also never received a contingency fee, but was compensated for his work on a variety of projects.

Federal law prohibits lobbyists from receiving fees contingent on whether their client lands a federal contract, such as the FCC lease.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, challenged the explanations offered by Sasser and Knight, noting that both men attended meetings with government officials at which the proposed FCC move was discussed.

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Nearing the three-year mark that is often considered the term of an ambassadorial post, last spring Sasser informally requested his replacement in Beijing, according to aides.

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