Gore's fundraising still under scrutiny

Tuesday, June 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Al Gore and Patrick J. Kennedy were never charged in fundraisers involving a Buddhist temple, but Gore is still weathering the storm.

WASHINGTON -- When the news broke in 1996 that Vice President Al Gore had attended a possibly unlawful fundraiser at a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy saw storm clouds gathering over his own campaign stops at the temple.

But Kennedy believed "that our story could not be compared to the vice president's because we never did a fundraiser at the temple," he said later. He stressed the fine legal distinction between Gore's actions and his own acceptance of campaign contributions outside the house of worship, after making a speech inside.

Kennedy and his advisers said, moreover, that if there was any impropriety in the exchange, it was on the part of the go-between, Los Angeles immigration consultant Maria Hsia, not his own.

The Rhode Island congressman proved correct on both points. While fundraiser Hsia was convicted this year for her role in engineering illegal contributions through the temple, no charge was ever lodged against the recipients of the tainted money, Gore and Kennedy.

But for Gore, the Hsi Lai Temple episode has become the storm that won't blow over. More bad publicity may be in store for him today, when a Senate panel grills Atty. Gen. Janet Reno about the latest call for an independent probe of Gore's role in the 1996 campaign. The latest crisis centers on Gore's sworn statements about just the sort of hairsplitting legal points that Kennedy's advisers made nearly fours year ago.

Because of the election-year timing, "the focus seems to have moved from campaign finance to more general ethical questions," according to Brown University political scientist Darrell M. West.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who will conduct today's hearing, predicted at a news conference last week that Reno will turn down the recommendation by Robert Conrad, leader of the Justice Department's campaign-finance task force, that she have an outside counsel look at the issue.

"I don't think her analysis is going to change from the last three or four times she's reviewed this," Charles LaBella, the former chief of the task force, said on a weekly Sunday TV interview program. Reno's rejection of LaBella's 1998 recommendation for an independent-counsel inquiry of the campaign finances led to his departure from the Justice Department.

Specter, one of the Republicans who have criticized Reno's repeated refusals to seek a campaign-finance probe outside the Justice Department, plans to question her today about her decisions.

"The problem for Gore is that he has told slightly different versions of the event in different settings, so it raises doubts," said West, who has studied the Maria Hsia case and other episodes for a biography about Patrick Kennedy.

"There was nothing wrong with the event," LaBella said of Gore's temple apearance. "I mean, he was certainly permitted to attend the event and there was nothing criminal about it," LaBella said, echoing what Gore asserted long ago of his visit to the temple -- and what Kennedy said about his separate trips there.

Gore went to a luncheon at the temple on April 29, 1996, raising about $65,000 for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Hsia, a long-time Gore associate, approached Kennedy later that spring through associates who supported him and his father, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The congressman visited the temple in June 1996, with the understanding that he would be enhancing Hsia's standing as an immigration consultant in Chinese-American circles.

The understanding was that Hsia would help Kennedy to organize a fundraiser at a later date. Kennedy, who is now chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, explained that such "community outreach" efforts were integral to his long-term fundraising goals.

In October 1996, Kennedy returned to the temple to address a group of students. After the event, his fundraising aide took $5,000 in checks from Hsia.

In both cases, much of the money was given illegally through "straw donors" later reimbursed by the temple. Hsia's convictions in March were for several counts of causing the Clinton-Gore and Kennedy campaigns to file false reports on their fundraising.

As with Kennedy, "no one suggested that the vice president even knew or had reason to know that was going on," as LaBella put it Sunday. But "that really isn't the issue."

The issue, revived in Conrad's interview with Gore April 18, was whether he perjured himself in saying that he didn't know the event was a fundraiser.

"I sure as hell didn't have any conversation with anyone saying this is a fundraising event," Gore had told Conrad.

As LaBella put it, "You don't have a witness who says . . . yes I specifically told him that the Hsi Lai temple event was a fundraising event, but circumstantially it seems pretty obvious. Everybody else knew," from the Secret Service to all of Gore's aides.

If Specter is correct and Reno declines to name an outside counsel, West said any damage to Gore will be temporary because the public is largely unconcerned about campaign-finance scandals. But an outside probe would be "a real albatross around Gore's neck," said West. "If it becomes a fundamental question about Gore's veracity, that story has legs."