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Temple Leader Denies Political Purpose to Donations

By William C. Rempel
Los Angeles Times
Sunday, August 17, 1997; Page A10
The Washington Post

LOS ANGELES—The Buddhist leader who welcomed Vice President Gore to a controversial fund-raiser at his Southern California temple last year – and then authorized about $50,000 in apparently illegal reimbursements of campaign donations to the Democratic Party – says he was not trying to influence U.S. policies with his generosity.

"Everything I do is to serve religion. I do not serve politics," Venerable Master Hsing Yun said in a written statement to Senate investigators.

In the four-page statement, Yun took responsibility for the temple's contributions to the Democratic National Committee but said he "thought I was doing something good. It never occurred to me that this would cause so much trouble." He also said he was not clear about many details of the donation transactions.

The 70-year-old monk and founder of Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights minimized the intent of the donations as little more than charitable gifts to the American people. He called the political funds one "small way to express my gratitude" to the United States for its long support of Taiwan.

The statement, turned over to investigators earlier this summer in Taiwan, contradicts theories that the money may have been funneled into the Democratic campaign by unknown foreign sources. However, it sheds no new light on the roles of Democratic fund-raisers John Huang and Maria Hsia, who reportedly solicited the temple donations.

When the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee resumes its hearings into the campaign finance scandal next month, temple nuns are scheduled to tell senators that they rounded up the donation checks because they thought they were helping friends of the temple and that they had no idea they were violating any laws or regulations. The witnesses have been promised immunity from prosecution for their testimony.

The money contributed by about a dozen donors was reimbursed from a temple account. It remains unclear to what extent, if any, Hsia and Huang were aware in advance that the donations were to be reimbursed by the temple. Through their attorneys they have denied any wrongdoing.

The contribution controversy first arose during the 1996 presidential campaign. Gore, on a campaign tour of Southern California, attended a luncheon at the temple that raised about $140,000 for the DNC.

Gore and Yun had met at least twice before – the first time in 1989 when then-Sen. Gore traveled to Taiwan as a guest of the temple and a Hsia-led group of Asian-American political activists. In 1996 Hsia and Huang helped arrange a White House visit for Yun, at which he invited Gore to visit the temple, sources said.

Gore's April 1996 appearance at Hsi Lai Temple was an important public relations coup for Yun and his followers, who are seeking greater mainstream American acceptance of the mostly Asian religious order.

Working behind the scenes to organize the Gore visit were former Commerce Department official Huang, then a DNC finance official, and Hsia, a temple adviser and longtime Democratic Party fund-raiser.

According to Hsia, Huang was disappointed in the donation amount and blamed it on the temple. In fact, the Hsi Lai visit was not originally intended as a fund-raising event but tight scheduling demands on the Gore campaign had forced the cancellation of a separate fund-raising dinner at a nearby restaurant. The two events were combined, according to temple and Democratic Party sources.

Many donors canceled when they found out the fund-raiser was at a religious center, Huang reportedly complained to Hsia.

On the day after Gore's visit, Hsia sought temple help in making up the donations shortfall, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Based on their accounts, Hsia first contacted the temple by phone and visited within a couple of hours.

"She said John Huang had helped the temple and now he needed help with more campaign money before he flew back to Washington," said one of those sources familiar with the investigation who asked not to be identified.

Within two hours, the sources said, a temple bookkeeper rounded up various nuns and devotees still lingering in the complex after a daylong instructional seminar and essentially traded checks – in return for a donation to the DNC from a nun, for example, the bookkeeper handed over a replacement check for the same amount written on a temple account. Most were for $5,000; some were less, records show.

At about 7 p.m. Huang and his wife, Jane, en route to the airport for a flight back to Washington, arrived at the temple and picked up the checks. They stayed no longer than 15 minutes, according to the sources.

Without mentioning Hsia, Yun said in his statement:

"I do seem to remember someone saying, `You can help some too.' I called my secretary and said to donate some on my behalf. I felt that this was a little matter, a very ordinary affair."

The Buddhist cleric contributed $5,000 from an account in his name, according to DNC records, and was subsequently reimbursed, along with about a dozen others, temple sources have acknowledged, from a separate temple account.

In his statement to investigators, Yun said others at the temple, influenced by his actions, "also wanted to help Mr. Gore." However, he said, the nuns and devotees ordinarily donate all of their money to the temple.

"Therefore, when they did not have enough money to cover the checks they were donating, I thought Hsi Lai Temple could help," Yun said.

One effect of the reimbursements was to conceal the fact that the temple had made the $50,000 donation. Federal election laws prohibit concealing the true identity of a donor.

Yun insisted that any errors or violations were unintentional.

"We do not quite understand American law," he said in his statement, but he said "you can correct us and we will mend our ways."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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