Inside The Hsi Lai Temple
Federal investigators, however, want to know why Buddhist nuns made illegal contributions.
Why would nuns who are supporters and followers of Hsing Yun be interested in getting involved in politics and writing $5,000 checks to the Democratic Party?
"All our nuns have dedicated their lives to helping others, giving aid, alms, and relief. They do this all the time. There's nothing wrong with it," Hsing Yun said.
But the Justice Department believes there was something very wrong. One reason is the involvement of John Huang, the central figure in the campaign finance scandal.
And there's potentially even more trouble for Gore. New details have emerged about Huang's partner in organizing the event, Maria Hsia. A temple advisor, Democratic fund-raiser, and long-time friend of Gore, Hsia is also under investigation.
The fund-raising event at the temple that day went smoothly, but party organizers were not happy. Not nearly enough money had been raised. So the master and his followers, including nuns, got out their checkbooks.
A key figure in that part of the story is Suh-Jen Wu, the abbess (or head nun) at the temple. CNN has learned she is one of four nuns now given immunity from prosecution by the Justice Department, as well as by a Senate committee. They want her to tell what she knows about Huang and Hsia. In her first interview, she told CNN what she's going to tell the senators.
Asked what was so important about giving money to the Democratic party, Suh-Jen Wu said it amounted to goodwill.
"We believe that a good human being should do good in society," she said through an interpreter. "Therefore we thought this was the right thing to do. To me, it's like what I always do: giving alms, donations, and relief."
But who asked her to write out a check to the Democratic Party?
"I did it on my own. Nobody asked me to do it. We were good friends with Gore in the past," she said. "We like him. Now, he's coming out to campaign. It's our duty to help him any way we can."
A criminal conspiracy?
But how and why the nuns wrote the campaign checks apparently is not so simple or innocent.
The day before the CNN interviews, FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers were also at the temple questioning the same people. They're looking at what they suspect was a criminal conspiracy.
Sources say this is what investigators believe really happened: Huang and Hsia were upset that the Gore fund-raiser had fallen far short of their quota. Fearing embarrassment for themselves and the temple, Hsia called the temple the next day and said Huang needed $55,000 fast. Within the next few hours, nuns wrote personal checks, most for $5,000. Huang and Hsia returned that evening to collect the money.
The temple immediately reimbursed the nuns for the campaign contributions. The true source of the money was concealed. That's illegal.
Was Suh-Jen Wu reimbursed from the temple for the contribution that she made to the Democratic Party?
"I don't call this reimbursement because normally whatever money I receive I give to the temple. The temple is our home, so whenever I need money, the temple would give it back to me," she said.
And she said she didn't expect anything from Gore in return.
"No return. We just wish that he could do more for society and think of the welfare of people and that serves our purpose," she said
Master Hsing Yun was also reimbursed for his $5,000 check the day after the event.
"This is my check. I signed my name," he said. "But I never thought of it as political. It's just like giving relief after a natural disaster like a flood, earthquake or hurricane."
Did John Huang and Hsia know about the illegal reimbursements? Hsing Yun defends them, and the temple's communal practice of sharing money.
"This is not like: 'Whose idea is this?' It's a cultural difference," he said. "For a thousand years we've done it this way."
Through their attorneys, both Huang and Hsia deny any criminal wrongdoing but refuse to cooperate unless granted immunity.
Continued: Where did the money come from?
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