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Gore on the campaign trail in 1996.

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White House Seeks to Protect Gore in Temple Inquiry

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 1997;
Page A01

The White House yesterday mounted a detailed defense of Vice President Gore and his appearance at a Buddhist temple fund-raiser, just two days before congressional hearings into campaign finance improprieties enter a new stage with the spotlight focused squarely on Gore.

Officials released a series of internal memos, electronic messages and briefing papers intended to prove that Gore was unaware at the time that the 1996 luncheon at the Hsi Lai Temple in California was a fund-raising event.

But the documents offered ample evidence that, at a minimum, Gore's staff ignored numerous warning signs that could have averted what has become one of the major embarrassments of Gore's career. And one e-mail message from Gore himself six weeks before the event made clear that he expected to attend a Los Angeles fund-raiser on that date, although aides said the temple was not the planned location at that point.

The White House is deeply concerned about the possible effect of this week's hearings on Gore, who is positioning himself as the heir apparent to President Clinton. When the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee reconvenes Thursday, the featured witnesses will be two Buddhist nuns slated to testify that they were used to launder money to the Democratic National Committee in violation of federal law. Although there is no evidence tying Gore to the arrangement, the administration fears he will be linked by association simply because he attended the luncheon.

"That's the nuclear issue," said one White House official. "That could kill his presidential campaign." Nationally televised testimony from innocent-looking nuns exploited by political operatives in an illegal fund-raising scheme, the official said, could become the searing image that stays with the voting public.

In providing a point-by-point briefing on the vice president's involvement with the temple yesterday, the White House intended to send a warning to Senate Republicans not to try to tar Gore with the testimony of the nuns. "This is a shot across the bow," the official said. "Anyone who suggests the slightest knowledge by Al Gore of the illegal reimbursement scheme we will not permit to go unchallenged."

Gore is an inviting target for Republicans, not only because Clinton will never again be on the ballot but because the vice president's once-squeaky clean image has been tarnished by the temple episode, as well as by reports about his telephone solicitations from the White House. Wielding the gavel this week will be Sen. Fred D. Thompson, a fellow Tennessean and possible Republican presidential candidate in 2000.

In addition to the nuns, the committee has told two senior Gore aides, deputy chief of staff David Strauss and scheduling director Kimberly H. Tilley, to be prepared to testify this week. No requests have been made for an appearance by Gore, and aides said yesterday that he has no intention of testifying.

Gore's visit to the red-pillared, pagoda-style Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., near Los Angeles, on April 29, 1996, has emerged as one of the most memorable moments in the multiple campaign fund-raising investigations. Although Gore initially characterized the visit as a "community outreach event," about $140,000 was raised at the luncheon, and temple leaders ultimately reimbursed $58,000 to 12 nuns and devotees who wrote checks to the DNC. Federal law prohibits financing contributions in someone else's name, and the DNC has acknowledged that it was inappropriate to collect cash in a religious building.

The White House yesterday provided a nuanced account of Gore's attendance at the temple event that appeared aimed largely at shifting the blame from the vice president to his own assistants. "This is a story of mid-level Gore staff people not communicating what they had learned," one official said after the briefing.

While Gore has disclaimed knowledge, documents make clear that his office knew the temple stop was a fund-raiser. On April 11, DNC fund-raiser John Huang sent Tilley a memo about the event titled "Fund-raising lunch for Vice President Gore." On April 24, John B. Emerson, deputy director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House, sent an electronic message outlining Gore's California schedule that included the reference, "DNC funder for lunch." And an undated, unsigned draft schedule prepared by a Gore aide cited "DNC Luncheon in LA/Hacienda Heights: 1000-5000 head," an apparent reference to how much money each guest would give.

In addition, officials said one aide traveling with Gore that day – later identified as then-press secretary Peggy Wilhide – believed at the time that the temple event could be a fund-raiser. But they said it was not her job to brief Gore and she never raised the matter with him.

According to the documents, Gore was informed for months that he would attend a fund-raiser in the Los Angeles area on that day. What remains unclear from the papers is whether he knew the original plan to have it at a restaurant had been rearranged to combine it with his temple visit, and not simply canceled as aides say he believed.

In a March 15 e-mail reply to Tilley, Gore said he could not attend a New York function because he would be flying to San Jose and Los Angeles for fund-raisers on April 29. "If we have already booked the fund-raisers, then we have to decline," Gore wrote.

As it happens, on the same day he sent that message, Gore met in Washington with the temple's venerable master, Hsing Yung, at Huang's request. At the end of that 10-minute session, the cleric invited Gore to visit the temple sometime, and the vice president replied that he would like to do that. Officials said the timing was coincidental, but Huang later used this as a reason to add the temple to the April schedule.

Another memo sent to Gore by Harold Ickes, then deputy White House chief of staff, shows that as late as April 10 the vice president was told he would attend a fund-raiser in Los Angeles with "projected revenue" of $250,000. That memo was not among those released by the White House yesterday, although it has been provided to investigators. At that time, officials said, the fund-raiser was still planned for the restaurant, but Huang's memo to Tilley just a day later listed the temple as the location.

On the day of the event, Gore was given a briefing memo prepared by DNC finance officials noting that those attending the temple luncheon were members of a Huang-organized Asian American donor council that required annual membership dues of $2,500. The memo instructed the vice president that "your role and contribution" was to thank the council members for their past support "and inspire political and fund-raising efforts among the Asian Pacific American Community."

Aides yesterday contrasted that memo with briefing memos for other Gore events that were "formal fund-raisers," noting that those papers explicitly stated financial goals, unlike the one for the Hsi Lai luncheon. They also produced talking points prepared for Gore on the day of the temple visit that show overt references to campaign cash at a separate fund-raiser and no such mention at Hsi Lai.

Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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