It took more than a year of prodding to get the Justice Department interested in how the White House and the Democratic National Committee financed the 1996 campaign, but the indictments are flowing now. Maria Hsia is charged with laundering over $55,000 from the Buddhist temple luncheon for Vice President Al Gore on April 29, 1996. A Senate committee’s charge that Ms. Hsia was a Chinese intelligence agent during an eight-year period when she worked closely with Mr. Gore and the D.N.C. has yet to be proved, but the tale of those years is too important to be lost amid war talk and sex scandals.
One fascinating aspect is the way in which Mr. Gore’s memories of the temple event have evolved — to use the politest possible term — as more information has emerged. During the 1996 campaign, Mr. Gore said his appearance at the Hsi Lai Temple was a ”community outreach” event. Four months later, he remembered it was ”finance related.” Indeed, it was. According to a report by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, a witness recalled fund-raising announcements from the podium. The committee also found a memo from Harold Ickes to Mr. Gore telling him that the event would raise $250,000 and would be organized by John Huang, the D.N.C. official who circulated among the donors during lunch.
If Mr. Gore was not aware that the presence of Mr. Huang and Ms. Hsia at the temple luncheon in 1996 proved that money was being raised, we are dealing with obliviousness of a rare order. Those two joined with the Clinton Administration’s wealthiest Asian supporter, the Riady family of Indonesia, to form a fund-raising group, the Pacific Leadership Council. In 1989, Ms. Hsia helped arrange a P.L.C. fund-raiser for then-Senator Gore that was attended by several monks and nuns from the Hsi Lai temple. Mr. Gore wrote Ms. Hsia a letter thanking her for helping finance his 1990 senatorial campaign. He also traveled to Taiwan on a trip she arranged.
Others who helped arrange that trip were Mr. Huang, later to emerge as the D.N.C.’s main collector of tainted Asian money, and James Riady, whose family lobbied the White House to put Mr. Huang at the D.N.C. While the Huang-Riady-Hsia team was in close contact with Mr. Gore, Ms. Hsia was developing a remarkable talent for getting nuns and monks to give to the Democrats. The Republicans believe that over $100,000 was laundered through Hsi Lai Temple monastics in 1996 alone. The Justice Department charges specifically that Ms. Hsia helped solicit $55,000 for which individual donors were illegally reimbursed with temple funds.
Justice’s formal charges and the related, but more serious Republican allegations will be proved or disproved over time. Meanwhile, the pattern that emerges is provocative. In Mr. Clinton’s friend Charlie Trie and Mr. Gore’s associate Maria Hsia, people with clear Administration ties are being indicted at a smart clip. Finally, the Justice Department is moving. What we do not know is whether it is curious enough to follow the trail wherever, and however high, it leads.