In this poisonous era of identity politics, it is impossible to raise questions about a prominent minority figure without being branded a racist. But since I am an Asian-American, and the subject of my scrutiny is an Asian-American, perhaps we can put aside the race card and deal a straight hand without the usual recriminations.

Elaine Chao, President-elect Bush’s second nominee to head the Department of Labor, is a successful Washington insider. As a former official in the Bush and Reagan administrations and wife of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), her conservative credentials are almost impeccable. Almost. While she travels in all the right GOP circles, she also happens to be a good friend of strident Democrat labor leaders and a longtime acquaintance of President Clinton’s criminal campaign fund-raiser, John Huang.

It is disconcerting enough to see Chao and her supporters brag about her warm relations with John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president who helped torpedo the Labor Department nomination of Linda Chavez. But even more troubling are Chao’s associations with Huang, the convicted campaign-finance felon at the center of Clinton’s Donorgate scandal.

The infamous Huang contributed millions of dollars to the Democratic Party — and to a handful of Republicans, including Chao’s husband — from illegal foreign sources during the past decade. As a Commerce Department official, Democratic National Committee fund-raiser, and employee of the Lippo Group, an Indonesian banking and real estate conglomerate, Huang’s deep pockets were highly coveted by Asian-American movers and shakers.

Chao, a rising GOP star, had contact with Huang in both political and professional contexts. In sworn testimony before Congress, Huang noted that he had received a call from Chao in the early 1990s asking him to support former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY), who then headed the Senate Banking Committee. Huang shelled out a donation. In 1993, Huang organized a coalition of Chinese banks and individuals to sponsor a visit by Chao to Los Angeles, where she was honored by ethnic business and community leaders for her leadership at the United Way. “I see so many familiar faces and friends here tonight. This is like coming home,” Chao told attendees at the event, according to Asianweek magazine.

In 1999, Huang pled guilty to felony campaign-finance violations. Huang admitted his central role in funneling political donations for the Lippo Group, which maintains strong ties to the Chinese government. Lippo employees were secretly reimbursed for making contributions. At least one Huang-solicited contribution reportedly came from a top Chinese intelligence official; congressional investigators concluded that Huang “was provided with a wealth of classified material pertaining to China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia” while at the Commerce Department.

Chao’s friend, Sen. D’Amato, returned the contributions Huang gave him. However, Chao’s husband, Sen. McConnell, has declined to return his contributions from Huang. (He has also declined to return a contribution from his former employee, Maria Hsia — another convicted campaign-finance felon who illegally enlisted foreign nuns and monks at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple as straw donors for Vice President Al Gore.)

Last week, Huang’s boss — Lippo’s chief executive and longtime Clinton crony James Riady — finally pled guilty to his role in the elaborate campaign-finance conspiracy with Huang dating back to 1988. Their goal? Changes in U.S. foreign policy that would benefit the Lippo Group, including most-favored-nation trade status to China and normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam. Mission accomplished.

Huang and Riady’s activities not only undermined our campaign finance system, but also threatened national security. Some brave and principled Republicans, including Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA), and a few intrepid newspaper outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, helped expose the crimes.

Where was Chao? Echoing ethnic Democrat activists who complained about “Asian-bashing.” Pulling out her race card, Chao told the Dallas Morning News that the “media selectively targeted Asian-Americans in their zeal to cover the story. That’s a disgrace to our free society … “

Does she still believe that? Does President-elect Bush know about the extent of Chao’s involvement with Huang? Does he care? Does anybody care? And will a single senator risk the wrath of Chao’s husband by asking probing questions?