December 22, 1996 in Nation/World

Sect Members Were Fulfilling Right To Support ‘Good President,’ Leader Says

Scott Lindlaw Associated Press
 

Minh Nguyen says it would be impossible to find a group of people less politically minded than his fellow disciples of Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai.

The follower who dares to introduce politics to a meditation gathering at Ching Hai’s center here is swiftly shown the door, Nguyen said.

Yet members, who sometimes meditate for nine hours a day in this manicured patch of ranch country two hours southeast of Los Angeles, have been thrust from obscurity into the national limelight.

The fund created to pay President Clinton’s legal bills from the Whitewater case and other matters disclosed last week that it had returned $640,000 to donors, many of whom belonged to the sect.

Nguyen’s personal check for $1,000 has not been returned. He said he made the donation to the fund earlier this year after members learned through electronic mail, TV and newspaper reports, and “maybe talk between us,” that they could help defray Clinton’s mounting legal bills.

“He is a good person, a spiritual person,” Nguyen said of Clinton.

Standing on the outskirts of Ching Hai’s compound in the rugged Riverside County hills, Nguyen said the entire affair was “only a mistake.”

“This is a spiritual place,” the Vietnamese native said. “It doesn’t matter what happened outside. We just enjoy the spiritual life here.”

But investigators working for the fund reportedly suspected many contributions were bogus because the donors appeared unable to afford $1,000 gifts. Some signatures on the donation checks had identical handwriting, and some of the donations were in sequentially numbered money orders from people in different cities, the fund’s lawyer has said.

In March, fund-raiser and Clinton friend Charles Yah Lin Trie delivered $460,000 to the Presidential Legal Expense Trust. He later provided more money, but the fund returned all of it - a total of $640,000.

Fund administrators feared that Trie was using Ching Hai members as a front to conceal the true source of the donations, or to violate contribution limits set by the fund. But Trie’s link to the group is unclear and no larger scheme has been uncovered.

On Thursday, the Justice Department issued subpoenas both to the White House counsel’s office and the trust seeking records related to the return of the donations.

Nguyen, 34, a U.S. citizen who owns a vegetarian food manufacturing firm, said he was not reimbursed by anyone and that no one was pressured to donate. His own wife, a fellow disciple and a Republican, did not contribute.

And while some sect members borrowed the money from friends, he did not.

“People, from my point of view, they appreciate the government to give them freedom to come to the U.S.A. and start a new life,” he said of the many Asian immigrant members.

“Because we are Americans, we need to fulfill our rights to support a good president,” he said. “After four years he did good work. He helped a lot of people in and outside the U.S.A.”

He said he had never heard of Trie until the name surfaced in news reports.

On Friday, volunteers tended the compound’s gardens in preparation for the hundreds of meditators who throng there every weekend. The center also expects a visit this month from Ching Hai, said Nguyen, who unfailingly refers to her as “master.”

While meditating, followers seek “the enlightened master’s” help in opening their “wisdom eyes,” Nguyen said.

Sect members eschew material comforts and the workaholic lifestyle.

But, Nguyen said, “If we get money in the bank after enlightenment, we still enjoy it. We live a normal life.”

xxxx THE PLAYERS Intriguing new characters seem to emerge daily in the controversy over foreign-linked campaign donations to President Clinton and the Democrats. A current sampling: Charles Yah Lin Trie: A longtime Arkansas friend of Clinton, who used to dine at Trie’s Little Rock restaurant, the international consultant and member of a presidential trade commission delivered $640,000 in questionable donations to the Clintons’ Whitewater legal defense fund last spring. They were later returned. Wang Jun: A Chinese government weapons dealer who attended a White House reception held by Clinton last February. Trie arranged the invitation. The president has said it was inappropriate for Wang, whose company later was implicated in arms smuggling into the United States, to attend. Mochtar and James Riady: The patriarch and his son, respectively, of Indonesia’s Lippo Group conglomerate. Family members and Lippo associates have contributed heavily to Clinton and the Democrats over the years. James Riady made numerous visits to the White House, including six in which he met with the president. John Huang: Chief of Lippo’s U.S. operations before his appointment to a senior Commerce Department position and later transfer to the Democratic National Committee as a fund-raiser. He raised an estimated $3.4 million this election year, much of which was returned because of questions about its origins. Justice Department: Has expanded its investigation of fund-raising irregularities by the Democratic Party to include the president and first lady’s legal defense fund. Buddhist sects: Leading sources of the questionable Democratic donations. Vice President Al Gore attended a controversial fund-raiser with Asian-Americans in April at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif. Suma Ching Hai, leader of an international sect based in Taiwan, sometimes auctions her personal relics - including a pair of sweat socks that reportedly sold for $800. Mark Middleton: An international businessman and former White House aide who solicited funds in Asia for a foundation refurbishing Clinton’s childhood home in Hope, Ark., to make it into a tourist attraction. - Associated Press


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