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Vice President Al Gore accepts a gift from Master Hsing Yun at the Hsi Lai Temple in March 1997. (AP)

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Senate Republicans Assert That Gore Knew Temple Event Was a Fund-Raiser

By John Mintz and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 6, 1997; Page A8

Senate Republicans alleged yesterday that Vice President Gore had to have known that the political event he attended at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles in April 1996 was a fund-raiser, and they cited memos from some on Gore's staff suggesting that's what it was to be.

But Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigating campaign finance practices in last year's elections insisted Gore didn't know Democratic operatives hit up temple followers for money before and after the event, or that temple officials improperly reimbursed donors. David Strauss, Gore's former deputy chief of staff, testified yesterday that Gore had no inkling of the financial details surrounding the temple event.

Yesterday's showdown, long dreaded by Democrats because of the damage it could do to Gore's presidential bid in 2000, came the same week that Attorney General Janet Reno launched a review of Gore's solicitations. The review is the first step in a procedure required before Reno can decide whether to recommend appointment of an independent counsel.

Gore has consistently denied knowing the temple event was a fund-raiser. Last fall, he said his visit was simply a "community outreach" event. In January, he said Democrats were wrong to hold a "finance-related event" there.

The Republicans did their best yesterday to lash Gore as tightly as possible to questionable activities described in Thursday's hearing-improper reimbursement of 11 monastics and devotees of a California Buddhist temple for $55,000 in donations to the Democrats, and two nuns' later destruction of documents about the event.

"It's very clear there was a fund-raiser scheduled . . . and I don't think you can deny it," Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) told Strauss. "It was called a fund-raiser five times [in memos] across your desk. . . . Keep in mind you're under oath."

But Strauss never wavered in his statements that, however misinformed some Gore aides may have been, the luncheon visit to the monastery in Hacienda Heights, Calif., was not a fund-raiser but a "donor maintenance event" intended "to reward donors or to motivate new donors."

Democrats and temple aides have said all along that Gore's two-hour temple visit on April 29, 1996, had none of the trappings of a fund-raiser: There were no donor cards or political signs, they said. Gore and other speakers didn't mention money. Instead he gave what he called his "e pluribus unum" speech about America's ethnic diversity, they recalled.

"I know what a fund-raiser is, and this was not a fund-raiser," Strauss said. He added that with Gore whipping through seven events that day-among 75 political events and 43 meetings in that two-week period-the vice president wasn't enmeshed in every detail.

The Republicans presented no hard evidence that Gore had direct knowledge of the fund-raising activities carried out by Democratic operatives John Huang and Maria Hsia at the temple.

But their strongest evidence was an elliptical memo written by Gore himself weeks before the event, on March 15, 1996. Gore was replying to an aide's query about a scheduling conflict. The aide wrote that since Gore had "fund-raisers" set for April 29 in California, could he attend a Jewish group's event in New York the night before? Gore replied electronically that "if we've already booked the fund-raisers," then decline the New York event.

Republicans cited his use of the plural "fund-raisers" as proof Gore knew money would change hands at the temple. The only fund-raiser Gore attended on April 29 was a dinner at a home near San Jose.

"These documents once again raise questions about the vice president's veracity," Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson said. "Albert Gore has stated he had no knowledge that the Buddhist temple event was a fund-raiser, yet his own e-mail shows he knew."

But Democratic staff members said that Gore was only replying to the aide's reference to "fund-raisers," and that she was also refering to a then-planned restaurant event for Asian Americans. Because of scheduling conflicts and organizer Huang's failure to sell tables at the restaurant fund-raiser, the event was folded into the temple visit, causing much of the later confusion, Democrats said.

Senate Republicans asserted that Democrats fabricated plans for a fund-raising lunch at the Harbor Village restaurant in Monterey Park after the fact, and cited restaurant officials' statements that no one booked a room there for such a gathering. Democrats said the restaurant event was scrapped before reservations were made final.

Democrats said the reference in Gore's March 15 e-mail to "fund-raisers" did not refer to the temple event because it had not even been scheduled by that day. Gore's message came only hours after temple officials paid him a social visit at the White House, and long before plans were set for the monastery lunch six weeks later, Strauss said.

"This is adding 2 and 2 and reaching 10," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said of the GOP charges. "These are forced conclusions not supported by the evidence."

The Democrats produced numerous White House and DNC memos buttressing their side, including one sent to Gore by fund-raiser Hsia on March 23, 1996. It said she and Huang were "organizing a fund-raising lunch event, with your anticipated presence, on behalf of the local Chinese community. After the lunch, we will attend a rally" at the temple. Even so, the committee's GOP majority released a report calling the Democrats' claims of a later-canceled lunch fund-raiser "a hoax."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), often the panel's lone voice for bipartisanship, yesterday said the GOP was stretching to tie Gore to the temple's improprieties. "It's unfair to attempt to hold the vice president accountable" for that wrongdoing, he said. "There's not a shred of evidence of that."

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said he'll "give [Gore] the benefit of the doubt" in his denials, but that "his staff let him down if he didn't know it was a fund-raiser. . . . He was very poorly served."

The committee also heard testimony from a man who brokered an illegal $250,000 donation to the Democrats in April 1996, the first big donation the DNC returned as the scandal broke last fall. The check, from Cheong Am America Inc., was illegal because the funds came from the firm's parent company in South Korea.

Mike Mitoma, then Republican mayor of Carson City, Calif., was courting Cheong Am because he wanted it to build a factory there. Company chairman John K.H. Lee told Mitoma he wanted to meet President Clinton at the White House. Anxious for investment, Mitoma agreed to try.

Mitoma contacted the DNC and was referred to Huang. The South Korean executive agreed to pay $250,000 for five seats at a fund-raising dinner with Clinton at a Washington hotel. In vetting the donation, Huang asked only whether a U.S. subsidiary existed, and whether the check would be cut from the U.S. company, Mitoma said.

Lee flew from Seoul to attend the dinner, but was told by Huang at the last minute that there would be no dinner, only a brief photo session. Lee was unfazed, but Mitoma said he was furious over the event.

"I think it's outrageous," he said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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