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Eu Criticized for Attending Soka Event : Education: Opponents say the secretary of state appeared to be supporting school in its land dispute. But an aide denies it.

January 22, 1992|AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California Secretary of State March Fong Eu was honored Tuesday at Soka University in Calabasas, drawing criticism from its opponents that she appeared to be supporting the school's battle with the state government that Eu serves.

Eu was the honored dignitary at a traditional tea ceremony inaugurating Soka's Japanese-language classes for Americans, despite an ongoing inquiry by the state Franchise Tax Board into allegations of tax fraud in the school's tax-exempt status.

The tax review grew out of a contentious struggle by state and federal parks authorities to acquire the school's land, while the school forges ahead with plans for an expanded campus that has generated local opposition.

A spokesman for Eu said she made the appearance to support improved language training, not to take sides in Soka's land-use dispute.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 28, 1992 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Column 4 Zones Desk 3 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Soka inquiry--A Jan. 22 article about Soka University reported that the state Franchise Tax Board was conducting an inquiry into allegations of "tax fraud" at the Calabasas school. Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) has used that term in interviews, but his letters to the tax board prompting the state inquiry did not. Nor has the Franchise Tax Board used the term in connection with the inquiry. Hayden told the board he thinks the institution should not be classified as a school, and thus tax exempt, for several reasons.

But several of those involved in the dispute described the attendance of a top-ranking state official at Tuesday's celebration as contradictory and ill-advised.

"I would hope that she would find a way of saying, during the ceremony, that, 'may in the future this land belong to all the people,' " Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said before the ceremony. The conservancy, a state agency which acquires parkland, has been a leader in the campaign to turn Soka's campus into a park headquarters.

Edmiston said he fears the school will use Eu's support for the language program to "create an aura of support that . . . extends to all the other things that they're doing."

Other state officials, who asked not to be identified, and Calabasas homeowner leaders combatting the school said they shared Edmiston's complaint.

Soka spokeswoman Bernetta Reade said she was sorry to hear of the criticism of Eu, calling the language classes--the first for American students--"an offering to the community."

"What people don't understand is that there is a land development issue and then there is an ongoing university--they are two different things."

The Tokyo-based university now owns more than 600 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains, including land that state and national parks officials had hoped to buy for a park headquarters. The school has applied for county permits to expand from a 100-student English-language program for Japanese students to a 4,400-student liberal arts college and high school.

Eu's chief deputy, Anthony Miller, said Eu was "aware of the controversies" surrounding the university, but her concerns about them were outweighed by her longstanding crusade to encourage more Americans to learn foreign languages.

Miller said Eu also knows that cult-watching organizations consider the school's neo-Buddhist affiliate, the Soka Gakkai, a manipulative cult.

"She knows that it's a bitter dispute and she's not there to take anybody's side," he said. "What she is endorsing is a very narrow interest here and that is language study . . . as a very important component in international competition."

According to state records, Eu has received no campaign contributions from the university or Soka Gakkai.

Eu has long supported free trade with the Pacific Rim and has strong political ties to Asian-American voters and businesses.

In comments to the language students preceding the tea ceremony, Eu said "Soka University is adding to the richness of academic opportunities here in California by offering Japanese language study."

Miller said Eu had visited Soka University's main campus during a trip to Tokyo last year, at the behest of "people in Los Angeles who were involved with the language programs." He said that during that visit, she asked university administrators when they would begin offering Japanese language classes to Americans.

"That's actually why I believe she was invited to attend" Tuesday's tea ceremony, Miller said.

The noncredit Japanese language class that began Tuesday is part of the school's effort to improve its community relations, which have been strained by intense opposition to the expansion from Calabasas residents and environmentalists. The 26-student class will continue for 10 weeks and will be followed by "a series of community-outreach and lecture programs," according to a school spokeswoman.

Soka was accused last summer of tax fraud by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) on the premise that classes at Soka University were not open to California residents, even though the public was subsidizing its existence through its tax-exempt educational status.

Laura Cohen, Hayden's deputy chief of staff, said that offering one Japanese language class probably would not allay his concerns.

"When you know the amount of money that was subsidized, I would hope that there would be some cost-benefit analysis required," Cohen said.

The Franchise Tax Board officially began its review of Hayden's allegations last summer, but had actually begun to look at the situation a few months earlier as the result of inquiries from reporters, said tax board spokesman Jim Reber.

Reber said the review has been drawn out by the complexity of Hayden's allegations, the size of the Soka organization and the amount of money involved--including the more than $50 million the school spent on land alone. He predicted that there would be "some kind of resolution in the next 60 to 90 days."

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