- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2000

Vice President Al Gore hopes to ride the nation's prosperity to the White House, but he faces eight months of questions about impoverished monks and nuns who contributed more than $100,000 to his last campaign.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, his expected rival for the presidency, wasted no time jumping on the issue.

"I think the administration has let us down," Mr. Bush told CNN yesterday, one day after his Super Tuesday aggregate win over Arizona Sen. John McCain. "After all, it was the vice president who went to a Buddhist temple to raise money.

Laying out what is likely to become a campaign theme, Mr. Bush said America is ready to end the Clinton-Gore administration.

"Americans want someone who will restore honor and dignity to the White House," he said.

The 1996 fund-raising scandal is expected to be raised by the Republican Party throughout the fall campaign. Television ads featuring footage of Mr. Gore at the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles will be a running feature of campaign 2000.

The temple a tax-exempt religious organization cannot make campaign donations.

Mr. Gore is trying to seize the campaign finance reform issue. He already has challenged Mr. Bush to scrap largely unregulated "soft money" donations in the fall campaign.

"I think that the cause of campaign finance reform is an extremely important one," Mr. Gore said yesterday in an interview with NBC's "Today" show. "That is the banner that I will carry in this campaign."

Already, Mr. Gore has begun to refer to the fund-raiser as a cautionary tale.

On NBC, Mr. Gore compared himself to Mr. McCain, a member of the Keating Five. "Like John McCain, I bring the lessons from personal experience to a strong commitment to change this system," Mr. Gore said one day after he swept Democratic rival Bill Bradley.

"I've learned from my mistakes," Mr. Gore added in an interview with CNN. "And like John McCain, I bring the passionate commitment, born of personal experience, to the cause of campaign finance reform."

Mr. McCain was among a group of senators who met in 1987 with Charles H. Keating Jr., a millionaire Arizona developer. Mr. Keating sought the senators' help in fending off federal regulators who wanted to take over his savings and loan association. Mr. Keating later was convicted of fraud and imprisoned.

Mr. McCain said he was trying to help a constituent one who had contributed thousands to his political campaigns.

The Arizona senator, who has run as the candidate of campaign finance reform, was reprimanded in February 1991 by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.

Mr. Gore's scandal involved cash, not constituent service.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported March 6 that "a growing body of documents" shows Mr. Gore had reason to know that the luncheon at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple was a fund-raiser.

The newspaper quotes a Gore e-mail message that says he knew he would attend a fund-raiser in Southern California April 29, 1996 the day he visited the Hsi Lai temple.

Last week, a federal jury in Washington convicted Maria Hsia, a longtime fund-raiser for Mr. Gore, of concealing the source of $109,000 donated after the vice president attended the fund-raiser at the Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif.

Hsia was convicted on five felony counts, each calling for a prison sentence of five years. A status hearing for defense motions is set for May 15. Hsia's sentencing is pending.

Mr. Gore calls Hsia, 48, a California immigration consultant, "a friend and a political supporter."

She began raising campaign cash for Mr. Gore more than a decade ago.

Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley all see the fund-raising scandal as Mr. Gore's Achilles' heel.

Mr. Gore has admitted making fund-raising phone calls from the White House during the 1996 campaign. He told reporters there was "no controlling legal authority," meaning no precedent for prosecution.

"I will remind Al Gore that Americans do not want a White House where there is 'no controlling legal authority,' " Mr. Bush said Tuesday night in Austin, Texas, where he celebrated his victory over Mr. McCain.

Mr. Bradley has warned Democrats that Mr. Gore is vulnerable on the issue.

"I think it's going to be a big issue," Mr. Bradley said on NBC's "Meet the Press" after Hsia was convicted.

"I said all along that I thought unless the vice president made a full explanation, answered questions about the event, that Republicans would use it in the fall."

Mr. Bush may adopt Mr. McCain's campaign finance applause lines in the fall campaign.

"This president took the Lincoln Bedroom and treated it like a Motel 6 and he was the bellhop," Mr. McCain said last December during a joint appearance with Mr. Bradley in Claremont, N.H.

"The vice president of the United States asked monks and nuns to violate their vow of poverty in order to pay thousands of dollars so that they could spiritually commune with him."

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