The Buddhist leader who welcomed Vice President Al Gore to a controversial fund-raiser at his Southern California temple last year--and then authorized about $50,000 in apparently illegal reimbursements of campaign donations to the Democratic Party--says he was not trying to influence U.S. policies with his generosity.
"Everything I do is to serve religion. I do not serve politics," said Venerable Master Hsing Yun in a written statement to Senate investigators, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
In the four-page statement, Yun took responsibility for the temple's contributions to the Democratic National Committee but said he "thought I was doing something good. It never occurred to me that this would cause so much trouble." He also said he was not clear about many details of the donation transactions.
The 70-year-old monk and founder of Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights said the controversy has been exaggerated to the detriment of racial and religious relations. And he minimized the intent of the donations as little more than charitable gifts to the American people. He called the political funds one "small way to express my gratitude" to the U.S. for its long support of Taiwan.
"My entire life I have been a person who enjoys doing good deeds and giving to others," Yun said.
The statement, turned over to investigators earlier this summer in Taiwan, contradicts theories that the money may have been funneled into the Democratic campaign by unknown foreign sources. However, it sheds no new light on the curious roles of Democratic fund-raisers John Huang and Maria Hsia, who reportedly solicited the temple donations.
Document May Preview Testimony
The previously undisclosed document also may provide a preview of testimony expected from temple witnesses next month when the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee resumes its hearings into the campaign finance controversy.
A group of temple nuns is expected to tell senators that they rounded up the donation checks because they thought they were helping friends of the temple and that they had no idea they were violating any laws or regulations. The witnesses have been promised immunity from prosecution for their testimony.
Temple sources have steadfastly denied any assertions that the political donations were intended to influence the Clinton administration or that the nuns and devotees who wrote checks to the DNC were acting as conduits for foreign interests.
The money contributed by about a dozen donors was reimbursed from a temple account. It remains unclear to what extent, if any, Hsia and Huang were aware in advance that the donations were to be reimbursed by the temple. Through their attorneys they have denied any wrongdoing.
The contribution controversy first arose during the 1996 presidential campaign. Gore, on a campaign tour of Southern California, attended a luncheon at the temple that raised about $140,000 for the DNC.
Gore and Yun had met at least twice before--the first time in 1989 when then-Sen. Gore traveled to Taiwan as a guest of the temple and a Hsia-led group of Asian American political activists. Again in 1996, Hsia and Huang helped arrange a White House visit for Yun, where he invited Gore to visit the temple, sources said.
The vice president's April 1996 appearance at Hsi Lai Temple represented an important public relations coup for Yun and his followers, who are seeking greater mainstream American acceptance of the mostly Asian religious order.
Yun indirectly acknowledged that goal in his statement:
"Buddhists are making their first steps in creating an American form of Buddhism and entering American society. If what they do sometimes does not completely match American culture and thought, I think they most certainly have good intentions."
He said that at the luncheon "I only accompanied [Gore] in eating a meal, and we spoke to one another in a courteous manner. . . . We did not speak about the campaign or anything about politics or donations."
Working behind the scenes to organize the Gore visit were former Commerce Department official Huang, then a DNC finance official, and Hsia, a temple advisor and longtime Democratic Party fund-raiser.
According to Hsia, Huang was disappointed in the donation amount and blamed it on the temple. In fact, the Hsi Lai visit was not originally intended as a fund-raising event, but tight scheduling demands on the Gore campaign had forced the cancellation of a separate fund-raising dinner at a Monterey Park restaurant. The two events were combined, according to temple and Democratic Party sources.
Many donors canceled when they found out the fund-raiser was at a religious center, Huang reportedly complained to Hsia.
On the day after Gore's visit in April 1996, Hsia sought temple help making up the donation shortfall, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Based on their accounts, Hsia first contacted the temple by phone in the midafternoon and then came to the temple around 5 p.m. on April 30.