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White House: Gore knew little about temple fund-raiser

WASHINGTON - White House officials Tuesday said that Vice President Gore had no idea that a controversial April 29, 1996, event at a Buddhist temple was a fund-raiser - even though much of his staff and many internal documents repeatedly described it as such.

According to White House officials, the only details Gore knew about the event - and almost all others on his schedule - came from the notes and "talking points" contained in a memo slipped to him just before the luncheon appearance.

But for the first time, White House officials acknowledged that many on Gore's staff knew or suspected the temple event was to raise money for the Democrats. Those staffers included at least one traveling with Gore and present at the April 29 temple event.

The White House's assertions, and its release of documents to support its case, came just two days before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is due to resume its hearings on campaign finance abuses. Gore's role in the temple fund-raiser, as well as other of his fund-raising activities, will be the committee's focus this week.

In recent months, the White House has made a conscious effort to release documents and tell its side of campaign finance related stories before Congressional investigators have a chance to make their case.

White House officials said Gore did not recall any of the particulars of the April 29 fund-raiser despite:

White House officials said Gore never saw any of the memos where the term "fund-raising" was used, but only a memo that provided protocols, like who would be present.

The April 29, 1996, event at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, Cal., was projected by Democrats to raise between $250,000 and $325,000. More than $140,000 was raised, including individual $5,000 donations from Buddhist nuns and monks who had taken vows of poverty.

After news reports about the event revealed its fund-raising nature, Gore said if he had known it was a fund-raiser he would not have participated. Under U.S. law, tax-exempt religious organizations such as the temple are prohibited from political fund-raising.

The Senate panel has a dozen documents that will show that all the staffers around Gore knew the event was a fund-raiser and called it such. The Senate committee also will try to show that when Gore arrived at the temple, he saw DNC Chairman Don Fowler and Huang.

The committee's first witnesses will be Buddhist monastics who have been given immunity from criminal prosecution. They are to talk about the fund-raising lunch as well as how they were given money to donate to the Democrats. Such donations, known as laundering, are illegal.

The Buddhist nuns will testify on Thursday with the help of a translator because they speak Chinese.

The committee also will call at least one of Gore's aides - most likely the vice president's deputy chief of staff David Strauss or scheduler Kim Tilley.

White House officials said Tuesday that Strauss never knew the temple event was a fund-raiser.

But Tilley is one staffer who did apparently know the April 29 event was a fund-raiser.

Tilley received a memo on April 11, 1996, from Huang regarding "fund-raising lunch for Vice President Gore 6/29/96 in Southern California." The "proposed event" listed by Huang is at the Hsi Lai temple.

State Department officials reviewed the event and Gore's national security advisers, in memos to each other, were clear that they wanted any political snafus to be avoided as far as Gore was concerned.

"State's (Department) advice is to make John Huang of the DNC responsible for managing the event to ensure the VP is not embarrassed," an April 16, 1996, memo from Gore staffers reads.

Huang also arranged the March 15, 1996, visit to Gore's office of Master Hsing Yun, the highest Buddhist leader in Taiwan who also was at the temple event. Gore had met Yun during a 1989 visit to Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Huang had at least one private meeting with former Commerce secretary Ron Brown as he was leaving his Commerce Department job to become a Democratic fund-raiser, according to a document released Tuesday by Judicial Watch. That conservative legal organization has three lawsuits pending against Commerce.

The schedule shows Brown meeting with Huang for five minutes on Nov. 28, 1995. That night, both men attended a reception honoring the ambassador of China at a Washington hotel.

Commerce officials have said it was unlikely the two men ever had a private one-on-one meeting.

By Tom Squitieri, USA TODAY

Contributing: Judi Hasson