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Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2000 /4 Adar I, 5760

Michelle Malkin

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Buddhist temple untouchables -- WASHINGTON, D.C. Live, from the sixth floor of the U.S. District Courthouse, I watched the futility of campaign finance reform unfold before my eyes. The federal criminal trial of Democratic fund-raiser Maria Hsia Vice President Al Gore's infamous Buddhist temple gal pal -- opened here in the courtroom of Judge Paul Friedman on Monday.

It's a case study in the senselessness of passing new laws to fix The System.

Hsia, a Taiwan-born immigration consultant and longtime Friend of Gore, denies taking part in an elaborate conspiracy to funnel illegal campaign contributions worth more than $100,000 through the California-based Hsi Lai temple. She is charged with five felony counts of causing false campaign finance reports to be filed. According to federal prosecutors, Hsia allegedly gathered dozens of checks from Buddhist monks, nuns and other temple supporters.

Three of the nuns testified to Congress in 1998 that the temple reimbursed them and others for $55,000 in Democratic National Committee donations, which were drummed up by Hsia the day after Gore's two-hour visit to Hsi Lai in April 1996.

Hsia's congenitally indignant attorney Nancy Luque argued in court this week that her client, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was simply a passionate "community activist" who cared about "safe streets and minority youth schools." Soliciting straw donations from foreign monks and nuns isn't a crime, you see. It's free speech! The noble Hsia "didn't do that for personal glory," Luque explained. "She did that to support causes she believed in. That activity is protected by the First Amendment."

Luque further asserted that her cash-collecting client had no obligation whatsoever to find out whether the temple donors who forked over four-figure checks were true and legal sources of campaign dough: "Maria Hsia is not responsible for what others do." Besides, Luque rationalized, "Even if Maria Hsia knew that contributions came from somewhere else, how does just knowing cause a lie?"

So Hsia is not responsible even if she knew laws were being broken because knowing a lie isn't telling one. The monks and nuns were not responsible because they were unwitting dupes who didn't know the laws. The Democrat campaign treasurers who accepted the checks from Hsia were not responsible because they can't check every contribution. And Al Gore is not responsible because there was no controlling legal authority.

To fix this broken system, reformers led by John McCain and Bill Bradley would ban soft money contributions to political parties, increase public financing of campaigns, and guarantee free television time for candidates. McCain and Bradley invoke the Buddhist temple scandal religiously in support of their plans. But their reform amounts to giving a new paint job to an old jalopy. As any two-bit campaign finance scofflaw in America well knows, piling on more rules simply creates the illusion of reform.

It is already against the law for nonprofit religious institutions to raise money for political candidates. Yet the Hsi Lai Temple is not on trial for violating existing federal law.

It is already against the law for political candidates to raise money at temples. Yet Al Gore is not on trial for violating existing federal law.

It is already against the law for foreign nationals to make contributions in connection to any candidate. Yet the foreign donor who allegedly provided Hsia with temple-funneled money is not on trial for violating existing federal law.

And it is already against the law to make contributions by one person in the name of another. Yet none of the conduits or concealers named as participants in Hsia's unholy laundering scheme are on trial for violating existing federal law.

"The system breaks down" because of deceitful fund-raisers like Hsia, lead prosecutor Eric Yaffe said in his opening statement. But what about everyone else involved? Thanks to the government's anemic, uneven, and incompetent enforcement of existing laws, our system of campaign finance disclosure was a sorry joke long before Hsia came along.

Hsia's trial has just begun, but the verdict is already in. No matter what the jury finds, it's business as usual for the untouchable money shakers, foreign straw donors, politicians with pointless legislative remedies, and hapless government officials who can barely enforce the glut of campaign finance rules already on the books.

JWR contributor Michelle Malkin can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate