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02/20/98- Updated 01:51 AM ET

Hsia pleads innocent to disguising funds

WASHINGTON - A Democratic fund-raiser pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges she disguised illegal campaign contributions by a Southern California Buddhist temple to President Clinton's re-election campaign.

Prosecutors said Maria Hsia, a California resident, had been under surveillance for months leading up to Wednesday's six-count indictment.

At her arraignment Thursday, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said she could be released on a $50,000 bond and ordered her to surrender her passport. He scheduled her trial for April 27.

"I have done nothing wrong and I'm prepared to fight," Hsia said.

Justice Department prosecutor Eric Yaffe said Hsia has been under government surveillance, noting she travels to China frequently, including work as an immigration consultant.

According to the indictment, illegal money also went to several other Democratic candidates between 1993 and 1996, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and his son, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island. Aides for both men said they returned about $17,100 in contributions after questions were raised about them last fall.

This was the second indictment obtained by a Justice Department task force investigating possible fund-raising abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign.

It was hailed by Attorney General Janet Reno as "yet another step forward" in the case. Reno has been under Republican fire for refusing to hand the case to an independent counsel.

Political observers have said the indictment could pose a problem for Vice President Al Gore if he runs for president in 2000. Gore was not charged in the case, but the indictment mentioned three fund-raisers that he attended and two that Clinton attended.

"It had nothing to do with me," Gore said of the indictment while touring flood-damaged areas of Northern California. "The process will work its way through."

The Hsi Lai Temple, located in the Los Angeles suburb of Hacienda Heights, was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment. Formally incorporated as the International Buddhist Progress Society, the temple is a tax-exempt religious organization barred from participating in any political campaign. Political contributions from corporations also are illegal.

During a hearing last fall, three temple nuns told a Senate committee the temple illegally reimbursed donors after an April 1996 fund-raiser that Gore attended. The nuns testified the temple destroyed or altered records to avoid embarrassment.

Gore has said he did not know it was a fund-raising event, but a draft report by the Senate panel concludes it should have been obvious to him.

Hsia, a 47-year-old immigration consultant, has been accused of conspiring to defraud the United States and causing campaign committees to file false statements about the source of the money with the Federal Election Commission.

The conspiracy count specifically mentions the temple fund-raiser attended by Gore and $55,000 in contributions it says Hsia solicited a day later from 11 individuals associated with the temple.

Corporate money belonging to the temple was used to make disguised and illegal campaign contributions to federal, state and local candidates, the indictment charged.

Temple monks and nuns, temple volunteers, Hsia's clients and Hsia herself posed as the donors of contributions but were reimbursed with money from the temple, it said.

On Jan. 29, the grand jury indicted Charlie Trie, a former Little Rock, Ark., restaurateur and longtime Clinton friend, and his associate, Antonio Pan, on fund-raising charges. Trie returned from abroad earlier this month and pleaded innocent.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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