09/04/97 - 09:49 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Buddhist nuns testify about Gore's role

WASHINGTON - Buddhist nuns acknowledged Thursday that their temple illegally reimbursed donors after a fund-raiser attended by Vice President Al Gore and later destroyed or altered records to avoid embarrassment.

The testimony by a trio of nuns, opening a new round of Senate hearings, intensified the focus on Gore, whose own 2000 presidential ambitions could be hindered by questions over his 1996 role. President Clinton defended Gore anew, saying the vice president had followed the law in raising money last year.

The nuns, from the Hsi Lai Temple outside Los Angeles, told senators how temple leaders went to the White House in March 1996 for a meeting with Gore and invited him to visit their temple.

Afterwards, the temple and two fund-raisers who had facilitated the meeting with Gore planned the event as a fund-raiser.

The White House said Thursday the vice president had no idea the event was going to be a fund-raiser, although his staff should have noticed.

The records were destroyed last fall once the controversy over Gore's attendance at the event had erupted during the final weeks of the presidential campaign, one nun told the Senate panel investigating campaign fund-raising abuses.

Man Ho said she destroyed a list of people who had donated $42,500 to attend the luncheon that she had prepared for Democratic fund-raiser John Huang. Once the fund-raiser became an issue, "I was afraid the document might cause embarrassment to the temple," she told senators.

Man Ho also testified that she destroyed lists of names of people who attended the luncheon that bore their telephone numbers and Social Security numbers - information the Secret Service needed to clear the guests into the temple.

Wearing nut-brown robes, the three nuns, their hair cropped close, testified under grants of immunity from prosecution conferred by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. They were the first witnesses after the panel's hearings resumed following a month-long recess.

The nuns testified a day after Attorney General Janet Reno announced she was considering opening a preliminary investigation to determine whether an independent counsel should investigate calls Gore made to donors from the White House. Federal law bars political fund raising on government property.

Clinton, vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., stood by Gore, saying, "I believe what he did was legal." Clinton said he was confident Reno would make a determination based on the law.

The Senate hearings turned to the temple fund-raiser as Republicans sought to undercut Gore's assertion that he did not know when he attended the April 29, 1996, lunch that it was organized to raise political donations.

Man Ho said the temple began laying plans for the fund-raiser soon after its leaders met with Gore on March 13, 1996, in the White House.

The White House says Gore did not discuss fund-raising during the meeting when he accepted an invitation to visit the temple from the group's Venerable Master Hsing Yan. The Buddhist leader was accompanied by Huang and Democratic fund-raiser Maria Hsia, as a well as the temple's abbess.

Man Ho testified that Hsia and Huang were involved at every stage of the planning and both attended the luncheon. Huang was the master of ceremonies and Hsia, a devotee of the temple, sat at the head table, she said.

The nuns described how Hsia asked Buddhist monastics to donate additional money to the Democratic National Committee a day after the luncheon. The temple reimbursed the nuns and monks for the $55,000 in donations they made as individuals to the DNC in violation of federal election law. It is illegal to disguise the true source of a donation.

The nuns said they were unaware of the prohibition.

Speaking through an interpreter, temple treasurer Yi Chu, testified that she destroyed slips of paper documenting requests for the reimbursement checks. She also admitted writing notations on the checks after they were cashed to make it look as if they were loans to the monastics or from their personal accounts.

"You did not want to embarrass Vice President Gore and friend and fellow devotee Maria Hsia?" asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

"Yes," Yi Chu replied through an interpreter.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said the committee made the correct decision to issue the immunity grants "even though some very startling information has come forth" about the nuns' destruction of documents. The immunity was granted over the objection of the Justice Department.

The committee produced exhibits showing temple officials disguised nearly $130,000 of donations to Democrats at Hsia's behest. Some of these donations date to 1993 and involve at least one other fund-raiser attended by Gore, investigators said.

Both Hsia and Huang are refusing to testify before the committee, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Democrats seeking to defend Gore produced a March 23, 1996, letter to Gore from Hsia indicating that the original plans for his California trip included a fund-raiser at a restaurant followed by "a rally" at the temple.

They also released a copy of a DNC invitation for a luncheon at a restaurant in Monterey Park, Calif., that officials have said was the original site of a fund-raising event.

That luncheon was combined with the temple event to accommodate Gore's schedule, Man Ho testified.

But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., released a copy of a letter from the restaurant's manager saying "our record shows that there was not any party organized" by Huang or Hsia at the restaurant.

By The Associated Press

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