WASHINGTON - In a caustic exchange with a senior Justice Department prosecutor two months ago, Vice President Al Gore denied being told by aides that a 1996 luncheon at a Buddhist temple was a fund-raising event, according to a transcript of the interview that the vice president's lawyers released yesterday.
"I sure as hell don't recall having - I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying this is a fund-raising event," Gore testified.
Gore's angry denial was contained in a 123-page transcript of a four-hour interview in which the head of the Justice Department's campaign finance unit questioned Gore at the vice presidential mansion in April about his fund-raising activities before the 1996 election.
The vice president disclosed the interview transcript yesterday afternoon, scrambling to blunt the potential damage of the revived Justice Department inquiry of his truthfulness in answering questions about his efforts to raise money.
"I have always cooperated fully," Gore told reporters aboard Air Force Two yesterday afternoon, as he flew from Denver to Palo Alto, Calif.
"I have admitted that I have made mistakes in fund raising," he said in the middle of a chaotic day in which he and his aides sought to contain the latest problem to hinder his presidential campaign. "But I want the American people to know that I have always told the truth on this matter. I have always cooperated fully. And I want the entire transcript to be out there and I want people to be able to judge it for themselves."
In the April interview, Gore was confronted with questions about an array of campaign finance issues, posed by a clearly skeptical and at times incredulous prosecutor, Robert Conrad, the head of the campaign finance task force.
Gore released the transcript one day after the Justice Department confirmed that Conrad had recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special counsel to investigate the truthfulness of Gore's statements about his political fund raising.
But the vice president questioned the timing of the disclosure of the new inquiry. "Here we are four months before an election that takes place every four years," Gore told reporters. "You can read into that what you want to."
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas seized on the renewed inquiry of Gore's fund-raising activities. "I reiterate my call for a new tone in Washington which is going to require a new administration in Washington," Bush said. "People are sick and tired of all this stuff, and the best way to start anew is with a new administration."
Gore has clearly made the political calculation that the public will view the transcript, filled with questions about events that occurred as long ago as 1989, as old news.
"I have full confidence in the judgment of the American people," Gore said.
Gore's answers during the April 18 interview at times appeared to conflict with conclusions reached by a 1997 inquiry by a Senate panel that investigated campaign finance inquiries. But Gore dismissed its report as "a highly partisan document."
At one point, Gore insisted that the 103 White House coffees held in 1995 and 1996 with campaign donors were not "fund-raising tools" used to raise money for the Democratic Party.
The Senate panel, led by Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, found in 1997 that supporters who had attended the events between November 1995 and October 1996 contributed $7.7 million within one month of attending the coffees.
During the questioning, Gore said that he had remembered "only one that I attended briefly." But the Senate panel found that he had been host of 23 coffees and attended eight with President Clinton. Confronted with the contradictory information, Gore said, "That seems inaccurate to me."
As a legal matter, Gore's apparent misstatements may fall short of sufficient grounds to show that Gore illegally perjured himself, a law enforcement official said yesterday. That is one reason, the officials said, Reno has shown no sign that she is prepared to refer the case to an outside prosecutor.
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh also favors referring the case to a special counsel.
Conrad devoted the bulk of the four-hour interview to Gore's understanding of the purpose of the event at the Buddhist temple.
Conrad repeatedly showed Gore memos - all of which had been made public years ago - from aides that suggested that it was known that the event was intended to raise money.
"You were aware in late February, were you not, that there was a goal of raising $108 million by the DNC?" he asked, referring to the Democratic National Committee.
"Yes," Gore answered.
"Then a couple of months later there is a DNC-sponsored event at the temple and it didn't raise any fund-raising issues in your mind?" Conrad went on.
"I did not know this was a fund-raiser," Gore answered.
But later in the interview, Gore referred to the temple event as a "fund-raiser." The vice president's personal lawyer, James F. Neal, quickly advised Gore that he had misspoken.
Neal told the vice president, "I thought you said previously you didn't, you still don't know whether it was a fund-raiser."
Gore then replied, "Well, that's right. That is more accurate. Let me ... let me amend that. That was first time it was alleged to be, to have been a fund-raiser."
The Hsi Lai event, held April 29, 1996 in Hacienda Heights, Calif., was organized by Maria Hsia, a longtime friend and political ally of the vice president who had collected money before the event from monks and nuns, some of whom had taken vows of poverty.
Hsia was convicted in March for hiding $109,000 in illegal contributions and making false statements to federal regulators about the temple luncheon.
Hsia is awaiting sentencing for the conviction.