Gore Aide Denies Temple Event Was Fund-Raiser
Former Southern California mayor describes his frustrations with Huang
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Sep. 5) -- Under pressure from Republican senators investigating campaign finance, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore denied that a campaign event at a Buddhist temple was a fund-raiser.
"Do you dispute that the event on April 29 at the Buddhist temple was a fund-raiser?" Sen. Arlen Specter asked David Strauss, Gore's former deputy chief of staff. "I do," Strauss replied.
"I believe I know what a fund-raiser is," Strauss said. "This was not a fund-raiser."
"We'll let others draw the inference into whether all those $5,000 checks made it a fund-raiser or not," Specter responded tartly.
About $100,000 was collected in connection with the now-notorious April 29, 1996, event at the Hsi Lai temple in suburban Los Angeles. That could be a violation of campaign law, which forbids fund-raising at religious sites.
Republicans on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee have suggested what went on at the temple was "money laundering," since the temple later reimbursed monks and nuns for their $5,000 donations to the Democratic Party. It's illegal to make political contributions in another person's name. (384K wav sound)
Revelations that money was collected at the temple event has sparked great political embarrassment for the vice president. The event was organized by controversial Democratic fund-raiser John Huang. (320K wav sound)
Specter, suggesting that Strauss and others on the vice president's staff may have been aware the event was a fund-raiser beforehand, walked Strauss through what he called a "substantial paper trail" of documents and e-mail messages.
"John Huang events in California," read a note in Strauss' handwriting on a phone log from March 1996. "Lead to a lot of $" and "moving support," read other annotations on a memo that led to a meeting between Gore, Huang and the temple's master on March 15, 1996.
But Strauss said there was "not enough context" to give a full characterization of the notes' meaning. Pressed by Specter on whether the March meeting led directly to the April fund-raiser, Strauss said it was simply a "courtesy meeting."
'Setting the stage'
"It was setting the stage for an event at the Buddhist temple on April 29, but there's nothing that one can infer from this that it would necessarily be a fund-raising event," Strauss said. He added that Gore often attended events to lay the groundwork for campaign fund-raising, but that the planning events were not themselves fund-raisers. (96K wav sound)
The vice president has steadfastly maintained he was never informed it was a fund-raiser, though his account has shifted since the controversy erupted last October. At first he said he thought the event was strictly "community outreach"; later, he said he knew that the event was "finance-related." Calling it a "mistake," he said "I knew it was a political event and I knew there were finance people who were going to be present."
Strauss said he had told Gore the event was "community outreach" and insisted, "I had absolutely no conversations with the vice president about this being a fund-raiser."
Minority Counsel Alan Baron, attempting to draw a distinction between the Hsi Lai event and a fund-raiser held the same day in San Jose, highlighted Gore's briefing materials for the two events. For San Jose, Baron noted Gore's materials had mentioned a specific dollar amount to be raised, while the Hsi Lai event had no dollar amount.
Strauss, prompted by Baron, noted that for fund-raising events, "the goal would generally be listed." And Strauss confirmed that Gore had not thanked the temple attendees for contributions, which he said was "usually good form" at fund-raisers. He said Gore's speech that day differed from typical fund-raising speeches.
"It was a very good speech, but it had nothing to do with fund-raising," Strauss said.
Committee Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to diminish Gore and his presidential ambitions. Today, Sen. Joseph Lieberman objected to Republicans' entire line of inquiry.
"What he [Gore] knew or should have known has no relevance," Lieberman said. "It is unfair to attempt to hold the vice president accountable in any way for the wrongdoing ... that probably occurred at the Hsi Lai Temple." (448K wav sound)
But Republican Sen. Susan Collins disagreed. "I don't see how
the vice president could not have known, given the numerous
documents" referring to a fund-raiser in Los Angeles," she said. (416K wav sound)
Following Strauss, senators heard from Michael Mitoma, former mayor of Carson, Calif., who helped set up a meeting between President Bill Clinton and John Lee, chairman of a South Korean company, Cheong Am America Inc. The company is the Los Angeles subsidiary of a South Korean company, which donated $250,000 to the Democratic National Committee. The DNC later returned the money since Cheong Am had negligible business activities in the U.S.
Mitomo described in detail his irritation when John Huang abruptly canceled a promised private dinner with Clinton in a Washington hotel after Lee had traveled from South Korea, although the businessman was able to meet Clinton briefly and pose for pictures. Noting Lee was interested in establishing a factory in Carson, Mitomo told senators Lee had no political agenda related to South Korea.
"This is as bad as it gets," remarked Lieberman, who wondered aloud if Lee had been willing to pay $250,000 just for a photograph with Clinton.
A third scheduled witness, Rawlein Soberano of the Asian-American Business Roundtable, was not called. The Thompson committee has recessed until 10 a.m. EDT Tuesday, when it will call former Democratic Party Chairman Don Fowler.
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