A close associate of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown has dropped a bombshell in U.S. District Court testimony in a lawsuit brought by Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch.

Nolanda Hill, Brown’s former business partner, said presidential aides – including former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and staff secretary John Podesta – directed the withholding of documents detailing a scheme to sell trade mission slots to businesses for $50,000 a piece in campaign donations.

Hill says Brown told her that Hillary Rodham Clinton was the driving force behind the efforts to raise the money illegally. She quoted Brown as saying he was “just doing my chores” for the first lady.

Hill was indicted by the Justice Department a week before she testified. Klayman asserts the indictment, on charges she diverted more than $200,000 from companies she controlled to finance her shopping sprees, was an attempt to silence her.

Judicial Watch brought the suit to establish a link between the trade missions and campaign contributions. At the hearing Monday, U.S. Attorney Bruce R. Hegyi said Hill’s allegations should be referred to the Justice Department’s Office of Public Integrity for investigation. Before the hearing, government lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth to end the case in Judicial Watch’s favor – offering to pay the group’s legal fees and undertake a comprehensive search for documents.

The suggestion was opposed by Judicial Watch, and Judge Lamberth did not rule on the motion.

It looks like Judicial Watch has hit pay dirt. Here’s a smoking gun linking the Clinton administration to the worst kinds of political shakedowns – trading governmental favors to high rollers for campaign contributions.

“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 said in a Jan. 17 affidavit unsealed at the hearing. “Ron expressed to me his displeasure that the purpose of the Commerce trade missions had been, and was, being perverted at the direction of the White House.”

It was on one of those trade missions – to Bosnia and Croatia – that Brown was killed in a plane crash along with 34 others. A perfectly circular hole the size of a 45-caliber round was found in the top of Brown’s head. Several military forensics experts who investigated the crash said the cause of Brown’s death could not be determined without an autopsy. Nevertheless, no autopsy was conducted.

The reaction of Panetta and the White House to Hill’s charges was predictable:

“It’s crazy,” said Panetta. “It’s absolutely false,” he told the Associated Press

“Ms. Hill’s allegations regarding Leon Panetta and John Podesta and the White House are false in every respect,” Podesta said through spokesman Jim Kennedy. “The only thing accurate in Ms. Hill’s affidavit with respect to me and my conduct is the spelling of my name.”

Hill also said that Brown showed her a stack of documents in early 1996. They were letters to trade mission participants from Melissa Moss, a former Democratic National Committee official then with the Commerce Department’s Office of Business Liaison. Each of the five or six letters she saw “specifically referenced a substantial financial contribution to the Democratic National Committee,” she said.

Hill said Brown used profanity in describing how Moss had written the letters without his knowledge. Moss has denied using DNC donor lists in putting together the trade missions.

Hill has confided that Brown told her he met with Clinton shortly before his ill-fated trip to Croatia. Brown reportedly told the president he was set to tell investigators everything he knew in exchange for a plea bargain. Clinton reacted coolly to the announcement, Hill recalled Brown saying.

If the Hill charges are turned over to the Justice Department, that will be the end of the story. Attorney General Janet Reno, with all the resources of the Justice Department at her disposal, was not able to find out what Larry Klayman discovered with his guerrilla legal campaign.

There’s enough evidence here already for the appointment of yet another independent counsel. There’s also plenty of ammunition to launch a full-scale congressional probe – if only our lawmakers had the courage and conviction to get to the bottom of the selling of the presidency.

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