WASHINGTON -- Defying the Justice Department, a Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising abuses voted yesterday to grant immunity to four Buddhist nuns who attended a 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple that featured Vice President Al Gore.
The four nuns are officers at the Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles, the site of the fund-raiser. It is illegal to raise political money at a religious site, and Gore has said his attendance was a mistake.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee wants to question the monastics, who have taken vows of poverty, about the source of the money they contributed to the Democratic Party at the event, arranged by controversial fund-raiser John Huang. Nuns and monks wrote checks for which they were reimbursed. The Democratic National Committee has returned much of the money because its source is unknown.
The bipartisan spirit that surrounded the 15-1 immunity vote was bolstered by a shift in focus as the panel gave Democrats their first chance to shine a spotlight on questionable fund-raising practices by Republicans.
Yesterday's first witness, Florida lawyer Benton L. Becker, described the circuitous route of a $2.1 million loan guarantee from his client, Hong Kong businessman Ambrous Young, to the Republican National Committee, which defaulted on the loan.
The committee's senior Democrat, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, said the evidence shows that the congressional elections of 1994 and 1996 were influenced by foreign money that was "laundered" by the RNC through a GOP think tank.
Becker said his client, at the request of former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour, agreed to guarantee a $2.1 million loan for the National Policy Forum, a group also headed by Barbour that was set up as a nonprofit policy forum and could accept foreign contributions.
The $2.1 million came from Hong Kong, although Barbour, who is scheduled to testify today, has said he thought the money came from Young's U.S. subsidiary.
Becker said he and Young were told that the money would go in part to repay a National Policy Forum debt to the RNC.
But, the lawyer said, "I was told the NPF was tax-exempt, a think tank, and the most important thing, that it had absolutely nothing to do with the election of any candidates."
Democrats are seeking to show that Barbour solicited foreign money specifically for the elections -- which would violate election laws -- and that the National Policy Forum, rather than being separate from the RNC, was actually an arm of the Republican Party used to launder foreign donations.
'Fiction of separation'
Yesterday, the committee heard testimony from Michael Baroody, the former president of the National Policy Forum, who wrote in a 1994 resignation letter to Barbour that "it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction of separation" between his group and the RNC.
Baroody also wrote that the idea of raising foreign money, which he thought would be wrong, "seemed to hold some fascination" for Barbour.
Testifying yesterday, Baroody said he had disagreements with Barbour over judgments rather than matters of law.
As to the "fiction of separation" remark, he said he was merely concerned the National Policy Forum was being run in a way that risked its tax-exempt status.
"The notion that it operated as a money laundry for the party is laughable," he said, since it was $130,000 in debt the day he started on the job.
In another document released by Democrats, Young wrote to Barbour in September 1994 that he was willing to consider the $2.1 million loan guarantee, "which is the amount you have expressed to me that is urgently needed and directly related to the November Election."
RNC spokesman Ed Gillespie said yesterday that the money from Young did not affect the congressional elections but was solicited merely to pay back a debt.
Trouble by money route
But at least one Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said he was troubled by the money route.
Becker also described how, at the suggestion of a Republican fund-raiser, Young used money transferred from his Hong Kong company to a U.S. subsidiary in 1991 to make a $100,000 donation to the RNC.
Becker said party officials were aware of the company's corporate structure.
The RNC recently returned the contribution, plus additional donations Young made between 1991 and 1994.
The committee's vote on immunity for the four nuns as well as for an associate of Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie sets the stage for proceedings that could be damaging to Gore.
Still, most Democrats joined Republicans in their insistence that the nuns testify. Some Democrats even echoed the GOP's anger at the Justice Department, which opposed granting immunity and has appeared reluctant to share information with the panel. The department is conducting its own investigation and told senators earlier this week that giving these witnesses protection from prosecution could impede its own inquiry.
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, said he hoped his vote for immunity would send "a clear message to the Justice Department that we are serious about our responsibility, we are interested in working with them, but with or without them, the committee will proceed."
The only member to vote against immunity was Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut who argued that the testimony of the Buddhists would merely add "texture" to what could be established through others.
In a related development, the State Department disclosed that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has intervened with China to help congressional investigators locate Trie, one of three Democratic Asian-American fund-raisers at the center of the fund-raising probe.
Trie, a former Arkansas restaurateur, is believed to have been in China since the controversy erupted.
Pub Date: 7/24/97