Two Buddhist nuns testified before a Senate panel Thursday that they destroyed documents and altered checks in an attempt to prevent the discovery of their temple's bungled effort to funnel money to the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 presidential campaign.
Joined by a third monastic at the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's hearings on political fund-raising, the nuns provided a stark look at how their religious life at a temple in Hacienda Heights collided head-on with the grubbier side of presidential politics at an April 1996 luncheon.
"I really got nervous," said Yi Chu, the temple treasurer, describing why she destroyed financial documents months after the luncheon. She, like fellow nuns Man Ho and Man Ya, had closely cropped hair and wore a flowing brown robe.
The nuns, who were given immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony, did nothing to link Vice President Al Gore, the featured speaker at the temple luncheon, to the fund-raising improprieties taking place behind the walls of the Hsi Lai Temple. But by detailing the temple's illegal scheme to reimburse $65,000 to individual donors, the trio provided a firsthand glimpse at an event that has helped trigger the donations controversy and that has haunted Gore for nearly a year.
The nuns' testimony about altered and destroyed evidence--not publicly known before--also served to portray the fund-raising aspects of the temple event less as a series of misunderstandings than as an effort to cover up violations of federal election law. And while Gore may have come through the day's testimony with no new blows, the efforts of Democratic fund-raisers to raise questionable donations were made to look worse than ever.
Republican senators, eager to embarrass a Democrat with his eyes on the White House in 2000, showed enlarged photographs of Gore at the temple luncheon smiling with saffron-robed monastics, making an offering to Buddha, strolling the majestic temple grounds. They also would have shown a videotape of Gore's appearance, but officials of the Fo Kuang Shan Buddhist Order have said the only copy is in Taiwan, beyond the reach of Senate subpoenas.
GOP senators suggested that the vice president, who is also under fire for fund-raising calls he made from his White House office, has not been completely upfront when he says that he did not know that the luncheon, organized by DNC finance staffers, was a fund-raiser.
Records released for the first time Thursday show that the temple has a long history of questionable political giving. Beginning in 1993, the temple has reimbursed as much as $129,500 to donors who had backed the DNC and a variety of other federal and California candidates, records show. It is illegal to disguise the true source of a donation.
"You are a little more sophisticated than what we might have thought, or else you had some help," Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate panel, told the nuns.
The temple's earlier forays into politics include a 1993 fund-raiser in Santa Monica that also featured Gore. Others who benefited from money improperly channeled through temple accounts are Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), former Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and former California Secretary of State March Fong Eu.
Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said Democrats clearly saw the temple as a cash cow to fill their campaign coffers. "I think this temple was abused by the Clinton administration for the last three or four years," he said.
Before the vice president arrived for his April 29, 1996, temple visit, the Buddhist followers collected $45,000 in contributions to the DNC--an acronym the nuns said they did not understand at the time. The day after the luncheon, Maria Hsia, a temple consultant who also raised funds for Democrats, asked the monastics to donate additional funds so that fellow fund-raiser John Huang could bring an even $100,000 back to Washington.
It was during their rush to round up the additional $55,000 that Yi Chu, who handled the temple's finances, said she began collecting $5,000 checks from followers--even those she knew did not have $5,000 in their accounts--and then immediately reimbursing them with temple funds. In addition, the temple reimbursed $10,000 that had been collected before the lunch, making a total $65,000 in temple money that was funneled through individual donors.
Although such a reimbursement scheme is illegal, Man Ya and the other nuns argued that the situation was far less clear in their case because much of the monastics' money is pooled together in joint accounts. Man Ya had herself donated $5,000 to the DNC, a contribution for which treasurer Yi Chu later reimbursed her.
"The lines between what constitutes the temple's property and the personal property of monastics are not viewed in the same way as they are in American society," Brian Sun, the temple attorney, testified.
Nonetheless, when the temple luncheon hit the newspapers, the monks and nuns were scared. Yi Chu said she altered some of the canceled checks to make it appear that the reimbursements were loans or came from monastics' 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.
Man Ho, the temple's administrative officer, said she destroyed a list of temple followers who had donated $42,500 to attend the luncheon, a document she had prepared for Huang. "I was afraid the document might cause embarrassment to the temple," she said.
Man Ho said she also destroyed the luncheon guest list, which included Social Security numbers and other information the Secret Service needed to allow the guests into the event.
Senators had not known about the destruction of evidence, which happened sometime last fall, until the nuns revealed it during their recent depositions. They said it would only be illegal evidence-tampering if it happened after February 1997, when the Senate issued subpoenas.
Senators said they considered the nuns to be pawns who had been used by higher-ups such as Huang and Hsia, who have declined to testify before the Senate committee.
Gore had met Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the leader of the Taiwan-based Buddhist sect, twice before the luncheon--first, during a 1989 visit to Taiwan and, years later, when Yun attended a March 1996 meeting at the White House organized by Huang, the former DNC fund-raiser at the center of the current controversy.
It was at the second meeting that temple leaders invited Gore to visit their Hacienda Heights facility, a $30-million complex.
Gore, conversant with Buddhist teachings, was not viewed as a politician but as a friend of Buddhism, the nuns testified Thursday. And the political contributions they made were similar to their regular charity work on behalf of poor people, disaster victims and others in need, they said.
President Clinton, vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., defended Gore on Thursday, saying the vice president had not run afoul of the law in his activities during the campaign. David Strauss, Gore's former deputy chief of staff, will offer the vice president's perspective in testimony before the committee today.
Sun, the temple attorney, cautioned senators not to tread so far in their inquiry into fund-raising improprieties that they make reckless claims that amount to Asian-bashing. He, for instance, argued that it was unfounded to suggest that temple devotees had been acting on behalf of any foreign government in making their contributions.
Responded Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah): "If you were all Irishmen, you would still be here for this hearing."
Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson contributed to this story.