Two Buddhist nuns testified before a Senate panel Thursday that they destroyed documents and altered checks in an attempt to prevent the discovery of their temple’s bungled effort to funnel money to the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 presidential campaign.
Joined by a third monastic at the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s fund-raising hearings, the nuns provided a stark look at how their religious life at a temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., collided head-on with the ugly side of presidential politics at an April 1996 luncheon.
“I really got nervous,” said Yi Chu, the temple treasurer, describing why she destroyed financial documents months after the luncheon. She, like fellow nuns Man Ho and Man Ya, had closely cropped hair and wore a brown, flowing robe.
The nuns, who were given immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony, did nothing to link Vice President Al Gore, the featured speaker at the temple luncheon, to the fund-raising improprieties taking place behind the walls of the Hsi Lai Temple. But by detailing the temple’s illegal reimbursement scheme, which amounted to $65,000, the trio provided a first-hand look at one of the events that helped trigger the donations scandal and has haunted Gore for nearly a year.
The nuns’ testimony about altered and destroyed evidence - not publicly known before - also served to portray the fund-raising aspects of the temple event less as a series of misunderstandings and innocent mistakes and more as sophisticated efforts to cover up violations of federal election law. And while Gore may have come through the day’s testimony with no new blows, the efforts of Democratic fund-raisers to raise questionable donations were made to look worse than ever.
Republican senators, eager to embarrass a Democrat with his eyes on the White House in 2000, showed enlarged photographs of Gore at the temple luncheon: smiling with saffron-robed monastics, making an offering to Buddha, strolling the majestic temple grounds.
GOP senators suggested that the vice president, who is also under fire for fund-raising calls he made from his White House office, has not been completely upfront when he says that he did not know the luncheon, organized by DNC finance staff, was a fund-raiser.
But records released for the first time Thursday show that the temple has a long history of questionable political giving. Beginning in 1993, the temple has reimbursed as much as $129,500 to donors who had backed the DNC and a variety of other federal and California candidates, records show.
“You are a little more sophisticated than what we might have thought, or else you had some help,” Sen. Fred Thompson, chairman of the Senate inquiry, told the nuns.
Before the vice president arrived for his April 29, 1996, temple visit, the Buddhist followers collected $45,000 in contributions to the DNC - an acronym the nuns said they did not understand at the time. The day after the luncheon, Maria Hsia, a temple consultant who also raised funds for Democrats, asked the monastics to donate additional funds so that Huang could bring an even $100,000 back to Washington.
It was during their rush to get the additional $55,000 that Chu, who handled the temple’s finances, said she began collecting $5,000 checks from followers - even those she knew did not have $5,000 in their accounts - and immediately reimbursing them with temple funds.
Although such a reimbursement scheme is illegal, Man Ya and the other nuns argued that the situation was far less clear in their case since much of the monastics’ money is pooled together in joint accounts. Man Ya had donated $5,000 to the DNC, a contribution for which treasurer Yi Chu later reimbursed her.
“The lines between what constitutes the temple’s property and the personal property of monastics are not viewed in the same way as they are in American society,” Brian Sun, the temple attorney, testified.
Nonetheless, when the temple luncheon hit the newspapers, the monks and nuns were scared. Yi Chu said she altered some of the canceled checks to make it appear that the reimbursements were loans or came from monastics’ personal accounts.
“You did not want to embarrass Vice President Gore and friend and fellow devotee Maria Hsia?” asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
“Yes,” Yi Chu replied through an interpreter.
Man Ho, the temple’s administrative officer, said she destroyed a list of temple followers who had donated $42,500 to attend the luncheon, a document she had prepared for Huang. “I was afraid the document might cause embarrassment to the temple,” she said.
Man Ho said she also destroyed the luncheon guest list, which included Social Security numbers and other information the Secret Service needed to allow the guests into the event. Senators had not known about the destruction of evidence, which happened sometime last fall, until the nuns revealed it during their recent depositions. They said it would only be illegal evidence tampering if it happened after February 1997, when the Senate issued subpoenas.