By Roberto Suro
The six-count indictment charges that from 1993 to 1996 Hsia illegally routed funds from the International Buddhist Progress Society, commonly known as Hsi Lai Temple, to support the Democratic Party and several Democratic candidates. The Hacienda Heights, Calif., temple was cited as an unindicted co-conspirator.
"The indictment is built on a factual and legal house of cards," said Hsia's attorney, Nancy Luque, who in a statement last night vowed to fight the charges, saying they are "absolutely false."
The most politically controversial event cited in the indictment is Gore's appearance at the temple on April 29, 1996. Gore has offered differing characterizations of the event, first describing it as "community outreach," later as a "donor-maintenance" event, meaning that as he put it "no money was offered or collected or raised at the event."
Hsia and unnamed temple personnel are charged in the indictment with soliciting $55,000 for the Democratic National Committee the day after the event. All of the contributors were allegedly reimbursed later with temple funds. Although congressional Republicans have sharply criticized Gore's statements, saying in a recent report that his claims of ignorance that it was a fund-raiser were "improbable," the indictment characterizes it only as a DNC event.
"It had nothing to do with me," Gore said yesterday of the indictment while touring flood-damaged areas of Northern California. "The process will work its way through."
Attorney General Janet Reno said in a statement, "This is yet another step forward in the Justice Department's investigation of campaign finance abuses associated with the 1996 election."
The Hsia indictment is the second case brought by the Justice Department investigation launched nearly 16 months ago. Like the Jan. 29 indictment of Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, yesterday's charges against Hsia focus narrowly on alleged schemes to disguise relatively small illegal contributions as opposed to the much larger misdeeds charged by Republican leaders who have repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, urged Reno to seek a broad investigation of the 1996 Clinton-Gore fund-raising apparatus by an independent counsel.
Hsia, 47, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan, was at her home near Los Angeles yesterday, Luque said. She is expected to surrender for arraignment at U.S. District Court here today, according to a Justice Department statement.
A recently completed report by Senate Republican investigators, based on classified information provided by the FBI and CIA, says that the Governmental Affairs Committee "has learned that Hsia has been an agent of the Chinese government" and "acted knowingly in support of it." The indictment does not address those allegations. Luque has denied any suggestion that Hsia had any involvement with a foreign government.
The draft report by the Republican majority on the Governmental Affairs Committee portrays Hsia as part of "a small but influential political clique" that included James Riady, a prominent Indonesian banker and friend of President Clinton, and John Huang, a former employee of Riady's firm, the Lippo Group, who was appointed to top Commerce Department and DNC jobs.
The report by GOP senators documents joint fund-raising and lobbying efforts by Hsia, Riady and Huang dating back to 1988, when Riady first wrote Hsia a memorandum outlining the Lippo Group's intent to get involved in U.S. politics to advance its business interests. Gore, then a senator, was among the first beneficiaries of their fund-raising efforts, and he took a trip to Asia in 1989 organized by Hsia and partially sponsored by the Hsi Lai Temple, according to the report.
The Senate GOP report also alleges that Riady, other members of his family and the Lippo Group have had a long-term relationship with a Chinese intelligence agency in which the Riadys gained business opportunities in exchange for money and information.
Yesterday's indictment focuses on the allegation that Hsia, the temple and unnamed co-conspirators defrauded the Federal Election Commission by preventing it from learning that the temple had made unlawful political donations and that they defrauded the Immigration and Naturalization Service by preventing it from learning that unnamed persons had violated the conditions of religious worker visas by helping make those donations.
Based on those same activities Hsia is also charged with causing various political committees to submit false statements to the FEC concerning a total of $105,000 in allegedly illegal contributions in 1995 and 1996.
The indictment cites four major political events -- including the temple event headlined by Gore -- attended by either Clinton or Gore in connection with which Hsia allegedly provided contributions by soliciting money from people associated with the temple who were then reimbursed with temple funds.
The funds were allegedly disguised as contributions from a variety of monks, nuns and volunteers at the temple because as a tax-exempt religious organization it could not legally make campaign contributions.
The Trie indictment was similarly built on allegations of a broad conspiracy to defraud the government rather than individual violations of campaign law based on specific contributions. "These indictments reflect a prosecutorial judgment that it is easier to get convictions on these overall fraud charges because it is more difficult to make a criminal case on fund-raising violations," said Jan Baran, a Washington attorney specializing in campaign law who is a former FEC chairman.
He noted, for example, that the FEC often pursues only civil remedies, such as fines, in cases of conduit contributions -- even when knowing and willful violations are alleged. Moreover, Baran said that the statute against making contributions in the name of another person applies only to contributions to individual campaigns and not to political committees such as the DNC, which was the recipient of most of the illegal money allegedly raised by Hsia.
None of the individuals who allegedly served as conduits for the illegal contributions in the Hsia indictment are charged or named as co-conspirators. Neither are any of the political organizations or candidates receiving the funds, which include the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, the DNC, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his son, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.).
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