Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 5, 1997; Page A01
Two nuns who attended a controversial fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple with Vice President Gore last year told a Senate investigative panel yesterday how they destroyed or altered documents in an attempt to avoid embarrassment to the religious facility.
In perhaps the most striking testimony presented to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to date, as the panel resumed its hearings into campaign finance abuses after an August recess, the nuns provided new details about their efforts to conceal the temple's involvement in Democratic National Committee fund-raising, saying they panicked after press reports described Gore's presence at the April 1996 event.
With their hair closely shorn, and wearing identical cinnamon-colored robes and wire-framed glasses, the nuns also told how the temple improperly reimbursed 11 individuals who contributed money shortly after the fund-raiser. A third nun testified that she made up a story about how she came to donate $5,000 at the event.
Under questioning from senior majority counsel Sandy Mattice, Man Ho, a senior temple aide, said she threw away a list of fund-raiser attendees and the amounts of their contributions because "after the controversy last October [when press reports were published], I'm afraid the document might cause embarrassment to the temple."
The fund-raiser at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., has become a major political embarrassment for Gore. The nuns' testimony, in Chinese and English, came a day after Attorney General Janet Reno announced she was opening a review to determine whether to order a preliminary investigation into Gore's solicitation of campaign contributions by telephone from his White House office. The review is the first step in the legal process required before Reno can decide whether to recommend appointment of an independent counsel.
Vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., President Clinton defended Gore. "I believe what he did was legal," Clinton said, adding that he was confident Reno would make a determination based on the law.
Committee Republicans were eager to use the nuns' appearance yesterday to score political points against Gore. They showed 16 large color photographs of the vice president's visit to the temple. There was one of Gore making a flower offering to Buddha, another showing him surrounded by nearly 200 monastics in brilliant saffron robes and still another showing him with palms pressed together in traditional Buddhist greeting.
Committee Republicans also presented evidence of other cases in which the temple reimbursed followers who made political donations. Between 1993 and 1996, the sect repaid 48 monastics and devotees a total of $136,400, including money given in connection with the temple event.
The appearance of the nuns, who were granted limited immunity from prosecution by the committee, was billed as a long-awaited highlight after several weeks of less than riveting testimony about campaign finance improprieties. As the women took their seats at the witness table, each flanked by a dark-suited lawyer, the only sound in the hearing room was the rapid-fire clicking of camera shutters.
During several hours of testimony, the nuns, each of whom was addressed as "Venerable," a Buddhist term of respect, appeared unruffled by the questions. But several times, the cultural gap between their relatively sheltered monastic life and the nuts and bolts of American politics led to puzzlement.
When Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) tried to establish that Gore would have no way of knowing the temple event was a fund-raiser, he sought help from Man Ho, the senior temple aide who coordinated the April lunch.
"Was there anything that occurred that could lead him [Gore] to believe it was a fund-raiser, anything in the remarks that could be considered to be of a political fund-raising nature?"
"No," she replied.
"No campaign posters, no buttons?"
Buttons? A look of puzzlement crossed Man Ho's face. She turned to lawyer Brian Sun. After a quick whispered conversation, perhaps to explain the significance of round, metal pins bearing names of political candidates, she understood.
"No," she said.
At another point, minority counsel Alan I. Baron asked the temple aide to describe the other "politicians" who had visited the sprawling, red-pillared complex on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
She cut him off in English.
"We don't consider them politicians," she said, bristling a bit. "If anyone visits our temple, we just consider them Buddhist friends."
"Well, I respect that," Baron replied. "That's very refreshing."
The nuns are members of a large Buddhist order headquartered in Taiwan and are not required to take strict vows of poverty often associated with Western religious organizations. Donations through monastics or devotees are part of the temple's way of expressing "its desire to extend friendship" and were part of the temple philosophy that giving to others spreads the spirit of Buddhism, according to a joint statement by the nuns and the temple.
Individual monks and nuns share their personal assets with the temple, which frequently reimburses them for a wide range of expenses, the nuns said, adding that they considered the temple their home and provider.
Temple attorney Sun, responding to allegations at the outset of the hearings about the influence of foreign governments in the U.S. political process, said the money used by the temple for reimbursements did not come from foreign governments or from overseas.
"There was no sinister purpose, and no political agenda," he said, referring to the monastics' contributions. "This was an extension of their friendship to Gore, and it could have just as easily been a Republican figure."
Still, Democrats and Republicans struggled yesterday to reconcile the temple's Buddhist tradition of giving in this case, political contributions with what appeared to be an elaborate system to reimburse straw donors and the subsequent destruction and alteration of documents.
The nuns said they did not intentionally violate federal election laws that prohibit giving contributions in the name of others. They said they knew little about federal election law or tax laws. No one told them to lie or destroy or alter documents in connection with the temple fund-raiser, they said.
Nevertheless, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said he was suspicious about the fact that two of the nuns said they destroyed incriminating documents without talking to one another. He also said he was struck by the "very informed and sophisticated response" by bookkeeper Yi Chu, who said she altered several temple checks used to reimburse donors.
She said she added notations after the checks were cashed to make it look as if the checks were from the monastics' personal accounts, instead of from the temple general account.
"It appears to be an attempt to cover up wrongdoing, a mistake, perhaps a crime," Lieberman said.
"I really didn't know what I did," the bookkeeper said through an interpreter.
The third nun, Man Ya, is the abbess at sect's Richardson, Tex., branch. She attended the Hsi Lai Temple event, wrote a check for $5,000 to the DNC and was one of the individuals repaid by the temple.
Last fall she was quoted in a news report as saying her contribution came from an unidentified woman at the California temple who gave her $5,000 in small bills. Yesterday, she testified the donation was really hers.
"This woman did not exist," she said. "The money was not given by that woman." Repeated questioning by members on this subject prompted the committee's exasperated chairman, Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), to declare: "The truth would not have been a violation" of federal election law.
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