09/05/97 - 10:11 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Gore aide says he was unaware of temple donations

WASHINGTON - With the 1996 election near and controversy swirling around Al Gore's appearance at a Buddhist temple, the vice president was told by his deputy chief of staff that the event five months earlier - where $100,000 was donated - was a "community outreach" luncheon, not a fund-raiser, according to the aide's sworn statement.

The aide, David M. Strauss, told Senate investigators that when Gore asked his recollection of the April 29, 1996, event, Strauss did not know that political contributions linked to the event had been raised for the Democratic Party.

Strauss was testifying Friday before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, where Republicans were eager to grill him over his definition of the event at the Hsi Lai Temple near Los Angeles.

The Buddhist nuns testified Thursday that testified they illegally reimbursed donors of the $55,000 and later destroyed or altered records to avoid embarrassment to the temple. They contended they were unaware that federal law prohibits political donors from giving money that isn't their own.

In defending his calling the luncheon as a "community outreach" function, Strauss told investigators that in Gore's briefing papers for the appearance, "there is no reference here to any money being raised at this particular event."

Strauss told committee investigators that when Gore asked last October for his recollection of the temple appearance, the vice president never asked whether the aide thought it was a fund-raising event - even though that question was becoming a problem for Gore as the election neared.

"He didn't say anything about the allegations that it was a fund-raiser?" a committee lawyer asked.

"No," Strauss replied.

Gore maintains he did not know the event was a fund-raiser.

Strauss also told investigators he recalled nothing about a string of internal memos in the vice president's office that, before the appearance, described the event as a fund-raiser.

Strauss said he couldn't remember anything about a telephone memo in his own writing dated March 13, 1996 - two days before Gore was to meet with the Taiwan-based religious leader of the temple's Buddhist sect. The leader, Master Hsing Yun, at that meeting extended the invitation to Gore for his temple visit.

Strauss' memo had the notations "John Huang" and "Lead to a lot of $." He told investigators, "I have no independent recollection" of the document.

Huang is a former Democratic Party fund-raiser at the heart of the congressional and Justice Department investigations into campaign fund-raising abuses.

In his sworn statement to committee investigators in June, obtained by The Associated Press, Strauss also said he didn't recall that two weeks before the event, a national security aide urged "great, great caution"' that Gore not become embroiled in issues affecting Taiwan-China relations.

Three Buddhist nuns from the temple testified Thursday that $45,000 was collected for the Democratic National Committee a day before Gore's appearance, and another $55,000 was raised a day after the speech, because Huang informed temple officials the initial amount was insufficient.

The nuns testified they illegally reimbursed donors of the $55,000 and later destroyed or altered records to avoid embarrassment to the temple. They contended they were unaware that federal law prohibits political donors from giving money that isn't their own.

Strauss' testimony kept the committee's focus on Gore in a week when Attorney General Janet Reno said she was considering opening a preliminary inquiry to determine whether an independent counsel should investigate the vice president. That issue involves Gore's fund-raising calls to donors from the White House. Federal law bars political fund raising on government property.

President Clinton, vacationing in Massachusetts, stood by Gore on Thursday, saying, "I believe what he did was legal."

Clinton said he was confident Reno would make a determination based on the law.

By The Associated Press



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