Al Gore's Clinton Moment His protests of innocence about the Buddhist temple fundraiser look very squishy.
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Vice President Al Gore's visit to a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles in 1996 is the very symbol of campaign-finance chicanery, particularly illegal contributions from Asia. Gore tried to distance himself from the event by claiming at first that it was "community outreach." Eventually he conceded that it was "finance related," but he's always said he didn't know it was a fundraiser. Could that be true? It stretches credulity. Over the years Gore, who rarely signed his own thank-you notes, maintained an extraordinary correspondence with Maria Hsia, a fundraiser who was one of the event's main organizers. "I cannot thank you enough," Gore wrote to Hsia and Howard Hom, then her partner, in 1990. "You two are great friends. See you soon." Six years later Hsia stood with the yellow-robed Master Hsing Yun when Gore arrived at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif.

A little-noticed set of documents collected by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee leaves scant doubt that the event at the Buddhist temple was a Democratic Party fundraiser--and that Gore knew it. These electoral mash notes between Gore and Hsia make clear that Gore saw green whenever he saw Hsia. The deception is so obvious to Republicans that they plan to use the incident to accuse Gore of something worse than campaign-finance finagling. They will call him Clintonesque with the truth.

Gore and Hsia got to know each other in the late 1980s, when Gore was worried about raising enough money for his 1990 Senate reelection. Hsia, an immigration consultant, was eager to contribute to politicians who could help her clients and associates. One associate was John Huang, who became notorious as an Asian fundraiser for the Democratic Party in 1996. Her clients would later include the Hsi Lai Temple, whose parent was the Fo Kuang Shan Buddhist order. In 1989, Gore was the sole U.S. Senator to accept Hsia's entreaty to visit the temple's Taiwan headquarters on a trip partly paid for by the order.

Prior to that journey, Hsia had donated money to Gore's campaign, and Gore had written to Hsia, "My involvement in the presidential race over the past two years has delayed my efforts to raise money for the 1990 [Senate] campaign and left our coffers empty for the upcoming race.... I appreciate your generosity and hope we can get together sometime soon." And before Gore accepted Hsia's entreaty to go to Taiwan, she wrote to him: "If you decide to join this trip, I will persuave [sic] all my colleagues in the future to play a leader [sic] role in your future presidential race."

Hsia also collected donations for Gore in California, helped organize Asian-American giving in Tennessee, and directed other contributions to his campaign through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In appreciation, Gore wrote to Hsia in January 1989: "You are a wonderful friend." In December the next year, he hand-wrote "Thanks!" over his signature on a letter to Hsia that said, "You helped make this campaign season an overwhelming success." In a more personal note that same month, he wrote, "Your friendship and your personal commitment to my political endeavors mean a great deal to me."

Gore and Hsia stayed in touch through the years. He co-sponsored part of an immigration bill she favored. She and her partner gave his son an electronic submarine game. She sent material for Gore's book, Earth in the Balance. ("Perfect," Gore aide Peter Knight wrote back.) And, as ever, she raised money. The true test of her fund-gathering skills came in 1995 and 1996 when the Clinton-Gore ticket was battling for reelection and having some difficulty raising money.

Gore had many reasons to believe the Buddhist temple lunch was a fundraiser. He was attending fundraisers often back then. White House memos, including one to him, referred to fundraising goals from the Los Angeles event. The lunch was attended by the Democratic Party's chairman and two of the party's senior fundraising officials, including John Huang. Two people who were there recall explicit references to money raising from the podium. But the giveaway to Gore had to have been the sight of Hsia. There she was once again, greeting him with the yellow-robed Master. Could campaign cash have been far behind? The Senate committee report says it was "improbable" that he didn't know.

Gore certainly didn't know that some of the nuns who made contributions were reimbursed by the temple; such reimbursements violate federal law. Hsia has since been indicted for soliciting those donations (among others), a charge she vehemently denies. Although Gore said in an NBC interview that attending the temple event was "a mistake," he added, "I did not know that it was a fundraiser." Republicans hope the public won't believe him--much as they've learned to disbelieve Gore's boss.