WASHINGTON — The "supreme master" of a Taiwan-based Buddhist sect urged her followers to donate to President Clinton's legal defense fund during a 1996 gathering, and one by one they came forward to give as much as $1,000 apiece, the sect's New York leader told congressional investigators Thursday.
Zhi Hua Dong, 32, a firm but soft-spoken Columbia University computer systems administrator, said that if the devotees did not have the money themselves, Supreme Master Ching Hai was ready with blank money orders for them to sign--funds that the sect itself would cover with huge wire transfers from overseas.
He told how he passed an envelope stuffed with the money, as much as $400,000, to Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, a Clinton friend from Little Rock, Ark., during a dramatic late night meeting in a Manhattan hotel suite. Just a few days later, on March 21, 1996, Trie carried nearly $500,000 in checks and postal money orders to the defense fund, which ultimately rejected all donations delivered by the onetime Little Rock restaurateur turned international businessman.
Senate investigators say the trail of money from members of the Suma Ching Hai International Assn., which reimbursed many of the contributors, sheds more light on the way Trie, a Democratic fund-raiser, collected funds from abroad.
The Ching Hai organization is presided over by a Buddhist nun who was born Hue Dang Trinh in a small village in Vietnam. In the mid 1980s, Hue set up a temple in a suburban Taipei apartment building where her disciples called her Ching Hai, Chinese for "pure ocean."
The group, which has chapters in Los Angeles and throughout the world, preaches vegetarianism and meditation mixed with teachings from Christianity and Eastern religions. Followers are taught not to lie, steal, commit adultery or become intoxicated. Among the more extreme practices cited in an investigative report prepared for the president's legal defense fund is that followers supposedly drink Ching Hai's bathwater, believing it contains curative powers.
Dong said he was not completely surprised by the spiritual leader's political solicitation because the group frequently raised funds for disaster victims, the homeless and AIDS patients, among others. And the leader had praised Clinton at a meeting years before as "a good person who loved peace."
At the urging of sect leaders, Dong collected $70,000 from followers, which he used to purchase blank money orders to be filled out the night of the New York event.
Dong recalled that Trie accompanied the spiritual leader to the New York meeting. During a 20-minute speech, she told followers that Clinton needed to pay off his mounting legal bills, and indicated that she could not donate because she is not a U.S. citizen.
"She encouraged them to help Clinton by contributing up to $1,000," Dong said, adding that some of the donors merely filled out blank money orders.
Late on the night of the event, Dong accompanied Hue, Trie and others back to the master's Ritz Carlton suite where they spread the money orders on a coffee table and added them up. Dong said some of the money had been collected earlier at a similar gathering in California.
Dong estimated there was more than $400,000 in the pile. Trie, who became a member of the sect on the same night, took an envelope with the money and left the hotel.
Two months later, Trie complained to Dong that the defense fund was refusing to accept the contributions.
While political campaigns are prohibited from accepting foreign contributions, the president's defense fund could legally take the money. But the fund's director testified Wednesday that he questioned the true source of the contributions and was concerned about the way it was delivered by Trie and whether the donations had been coerced.
Dong insisted that members of the sect gave willingly to the legal defense fund after hearing the spiritual leader's pitch. "We're an organization with complete freedom," he said. "All members have freedom at all times. No members feel they have to make a contribution unwillingly--including this one."
But Dong also testified that the spiritual leader became agitated when some devotees left the room without contributing. He said she is known for her strong voice.
In an interview after his testimony, Dong called reports that the organization is a cult "completely not true." As for suggestions that the master's followers are so devoted that they would do anything--including consuming her bathwater--to please her, Dong cringed and called that "completely ridiculous."
Dong's testimony ended the first phase of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's hearings on the influence of foreign money in the 1996 election. The hearings are scheduled to resume in September.
Earlier on Thursday, senators unanimously approved a broad subpoena for documents from the White House, a sign of the increasingly contentious relationship between the committee and the Clinton administration.
Frustrated committee investigators said they might move ahead with a contempt citation if the White House fails to turn over relevant documents. The White House has said it is cooperating as best it can with the committee and sees no reason for a legally binding subpoena to force compliance.
Among the papers the committee is seeking are documents related to Trie's appointment to a presidential commission dealing with Asian trade matters, and information on Ng Lap Seng, a Macao-based businessman who wired Trie at least $900,000--some of which was intended for Trie to use for political contributions.