WASHINGTON -- Taiwanese-born Buddhist nuns clad in cinnamon-colored robes testified yesterday that they destroyed and altered documents related to a controversial Democratic fund-raising lunch with Vice President Al Gore at their California temple.
Three nuns from the Fo Kuang Shan Buddhist order - their shaved heads and bespectacled faces an irresistible target for news photographers - were the leadoff witnesses as the Senate committee investigating campaign finance irregularities turned its attention to the April, 1996 fund-raiser at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Hills, Calif.
The temple's treasurer and its administrative officer, testifying under a grant of congressional immunity, admitted destroying or doctoring documents last fall, at the height of the controversy over the luncheon. They insisted they acted on their own, in an effort to spare their sect embarrassment, and rejected the suggestions by senators from both parties that someone outside the temple had encouraged them to destroy potentially damaging evidence.
Their much-anticipated testimony shed no new light on Gore's involvement. But the vice president's role was amply illustrated nonetheless. Committee Republicans put on display a series of oversized photographs of Gore at the temple, as if to underscore the political significance of yesterday's hearing.
Gore's fund-raising activities in the last campaign are, at the very least, threatening to complicate his plans to become the next Democratic nominee and succeed Bill Clinton as president in 2001. The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it is considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into money-raising calls the vice president made from his White House office during the 1996 election.
Gore, who has denied any wrongdoing, originally described the temple luncheon as a "community outreach" event. He said he wasn't aware at the time that it was a fund-raiser, although DNC finance officials were present, and has acknowledged it was a mistake to meet with contributors at a religious site.
Just this week, White House aides, at a briefing designed to contain any political damage to Gore from the hearings, characterized the luncheon as "donor maintenance." At least one committee Republican was scornful of that description.
"I don't think a $100,000 quota is donor maintenance. I think it's fund-raising," said Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico.
The $100,000 figure referred to the goal relayed to temple officials by John Huang, a DNC vice-chair for finance, who has been implicated in a variety of alleged fund-raising illegalities involving Asian-Americans. Huang, who acted as master of ceremonies at the temple luncheon, has refused to cooperate with authorities.
Several Democratic senators attempted to portray the temple members as unwitting dupes of Huang and leaders of the Taiwan-based Fo Kuang Shan order.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, called the Hsi Lai fund-raiser "another story of how the campaign finance system in this country has gone totally out of control. Because of the relentless pressure to raise money, a spiritual order has been drawn in and, at the least, tainted and corrupted. It's a terrible story."
During a full day of testimony, the three nuns insisted that the April 29, 1996 event was not a fund-raiser, since no money was actually collected that day at the $30 million temple near Los Angeles, which claims to be the largest Buddhist monastery in the western hemisphere.
Political donations, including the $100,000 donated to the DNC, most of which the party has now returned, are "part of the temple's way of expressing its gratitude and its desire to extend friendship and to enhance the ties and bonds between our respective cultures," said the nuns, in their opening statement. Any legal violations, they added, were unintentional.
In fact, at least $65,000 in temple funds was contributed to the DNC in connection with the event, a violation of federal tax laws, which prohibit religious organizations from direct political involvement. That money was given through straw donors - either monastics or lay members of the temple, known as devotees - which is a further violation of election laws that bar campaign contributions in the name of others.
Man Ho, the temple's administrative officer, testified that she destroyed a list of names of devotees who donated a total of $45,000 to the DNC in advance of the luncheon and the amounts they gave, as well as a second list that included the names of those who wished to be part of the crowd that greeted Gore outside the temple. She said she was afraid the documents "might cause embarrassment to the temple."
Speaking through an interpreter, Yi Chu, the temple's treasurer, admitted doctoring canceled checks drawn on the temple's account. The checks were used to reimburse temple members who acted as conduits for $55,000 in donations made on the day after the luncheon.
Yi Chu said she altered the canceled checks to make it appear that the money had come from funds, known as futien accounts, donated by monastics when they join the temple. She confessed that she did not know what the initials DNC meant when she wrote the checks in April and May, and skeptical senators tried in vain to determine who might have advised her to try to disguise the true source of the changes.
The illegal contributions were solicited, at Huang's request, by Maria Hsia, a Democratic fund-raiser from Los Angeles with close ties to the Fo Kuang order, according to the temple administrator. She said Hsia phoned the temple on the afternoon following the lunch, asking for additional donations, so that Huang could meet his target of $100,000 for the event.
Hsia, who accompanied then-Sen. Gore on a 1989 visit to the Buddhist group's headquarters in Taiwan, acted as the vice president's interpreter at the temple luncheon.
Questions were first raised about the propriety of Gore's visit at a news conference held there an hour after his departure - the event itself was closed to press coverage. Man Ho testified that Hsia, who has refused to cooperate with investigators, assured temple officials that the luncheon had been approved by the DNC and the White House and was not unprecedented, since political activities are held at churches.
There is no evidence to suggest that Gore was aware of the illegal contributions made with temple funds, committee staffers say. David Strauss, the Gore aide in charge of the arrangements, is scheduled to be the next witness when the hearings resume today.
Pub Date: 9/05/97