- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

Opening arguments begin today in the federal trial of Maria Hsia, longtime fund-raiser for Vice President Al Gore, who is accused of illegally disguising campaign donations to the 1996 Clinton-Gore Re-election Committee.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., begins as Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley has intensified his challenge of Mr. Gore's credibility concerning questionable fund-raising practices by the vice president during the 1996 presidential campaign.
Mrs. Hsia, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan, was indicted in February 1998 on charges of hiding illegal campaign donations made after a 1996 fund-raiser attended by Mr. Gore at a California Buddhist temple. She has pleaded not guilty. The case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.
The indictment, handed up in federal court in Washington, accused Mrs. Hsia, 47, of conspiring to defraud the United States and causing false statements on the source of contributions to be filed with the Federal Election Commission. The indictment said the immigration consultant used money belonging to the Hsi Lai Temple to make illegal campaign donations to federal, state and local candidates and their political committees.
Those receiving the money included the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the 1996 Clinton-Gore Re-election Committee. The indictment was brought by the Justice Department's campaign-finance task force.
Although the temple fund-raiser was a focus of the task force probe, FBI reports show investigators failed to ask Mr. Gore about the event in the course of three interviews, according to documents released by a congressional committee. Republicans have pointed to the event, and Mr. Gore's changing story, as evidence Mr. Gore was directly involved in illegal fund raising.
The Buddhist temple, located in Hacienda Heights, Calif., is formally known as the International Buddhist Progress Society. Named as an unindicted co-conspirator, it had been named in connection with the illegal reimbursement to monks and nuns of about $65,000 in contributions that went to the DNC.
The donations were considered "conduit" payments to the DNC, meaning that those listed as donors were reimbursed by others which is illegal under federal election laws. As a tax-exempt religious organization, the temple is barred from making campaign donations.
Three Buddhist nuns told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in 1998 the temple reimbursed them and others for $55,000 in DNC donations, which were made after Mr. Gore's appearance at the April 29, 1996, event.
They testified that the day after the event, Mrs. Hsia asked the temple to raise more cash to help Mr. Huang reach his fund-raising goals for the event. One temple official, Venerable Yi-Chu, asked several monastics to write $5,000 contributions each, for which they were later reimbursed, the nuns said.
The indictment said several conduits posed as donors, including monks and nuns, temple volunteers, Mrs. Hsia's clients and Mrs. Hsia herself, although all were reimbursed with money from the temple.
Mr. Gore had trouble explaining why he attended the fund-raiser, initially saying the event was for community outreach. Later, when confronted with new evidence, the White House said the vice president had used "a poor choice of words." Mr. Gore's office then said he knew the event was "finance related" because top Asian-American contributors would be present, but did not know campaign donations would be solicited.
His appearance at the event was arranged by Mrs. Hsia, who served as his interpreter at the event.
Mrs. Hsia's ties to the vice president date back to the late 1980s, when then-Sen. Gore was trying to replenish his Senate campaign coffers after unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He went to Taiwan on a 1989 trip organized by Mrs. Hsia and others, including Lippo Group executives James Riady and John Huang two men at the heart of the campaign finance probe.
On the trip, Mr. Gore met with leaders of the Buddhist sect with whom he later visited in Hacienda Heights.
In bringing the case, the Justice Department overcame several adverse court rulings, including a 1998 decision by Judge Friedman to drop five counts against Mrs. Hsia. A federal appeals court overturned the ruling, saying Judge Friedman erred in citing the First Amendment's protection of religious expression and free speech in dropping the charges.

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