Maria Hsia's revenge

Posted: Feb 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Newsflash: The woman who helped launder Al Gore's Buddhist temple money has not served a single day in jail. And she probably never will. The hidden story of how funny money honey Maria Hsia escaped any meaningful punishment for corrupting our election system shows just how empty all of this week's sound and fury over campaign finance reform really is. In the spring of 2000, Hsia was convicted by a federal jury in Washington, D.C., of five felony counts related to more than $100,000 in illegal contributions to Democratic candidates. The stash included $65,000 in straw donations, which Hsia had funneled through clueless, non-English-speaking monks and nuns the day after Vice President Al Gore's 1996 visit to the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Southern California. Hsia, a Taiwan-born immigration consultant, faced up to 25 years in prison for causing false statements about the pass-through contributions to be made in Federal Election Commission reports. That was two years ago. Where is Hsia now? Here's the rest of the story that the mainstream media has yet to report. On Feb. 6, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman finally handed Hsia her sentence: a puny 90 days of home detention and three years of probation, along with a fine and assessment of $5,300. Judge Friedman's slap on the wrist is no surprise. A Clinton appointee, he was assigned to the Hsia case by Norma Holloway Johnson -- another Clinton appointee who serves as the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Johnson bypassed the court's usual computer-randomized assignment system and somehow miraculously ended up assigning fellow Clinton judicial appointees to oversee six criminal cases involving Democratic fund-raisers and Clinton crony Webster Hubbell. When he first got the Hsia case, Judge Friedman immediately dismissed all but one felony count against the Clinton-Gore rainmaker. A higher appeals court overruled him. Then, during trial, he disallowed crucial grand-jury testimony to be introduced. After the jury reached its guilty verdict, he dallied before entering a judgment of conviction (which usually follows a verdict immediately). And according to the BNA Money & Politics Report, a D.C.-based daily newsletter that first reported news of Hsia's reduced sentence, Friedman blocked prosecutors from securing tougher penalties. In his ruling, Friedman suggested "that the prosecutors' position was improperly influenced by Hsia's refusal to cooperate with the Justice Department's campaign finance investigation." It turns out that Hsia was brought before a federal grand jury in Los Angeles last April, after her conviction in Friedman's court. Government lawyers granted the convicted felon complete immunity and compelled her to testify about campaign finance matters, but she refused to cooperate and claimed not to understand English well enough to respond to questions. One can hardly blame prosecutors for feeling like chumps. Ms. Hsia, a naturalized American citizen and savvy political operative, had no trouble expressing herself in English over the past decade while working with politicians from former California Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell to the Clinton-Gore White House. And she had no trouble mouthing off to New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin two years ago about how pleased Al Gore should be about his temple trips -- or about her innocence in the matter. Gore, she said, "shouldn't feel embarrassed or ashamed of relating to the temple. He should feel very proud of himself ... There's nothing wrong. He didn't do anything wrong." Moreover, Hsia added, "I didn't do anything wrong. I'm at peace ... My heart is free." And so, while her lawyers prepare more delay tactics and appeals, is she. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the Buddhist temple scandal was repeatedly invoked as a reason to support campaign finance reform. But the proposals by McCain & Feingold & Shays & Meehan would do nothing more to prevent politicians and fund-raisers from hustling cash from foreign nationals under the robes of monks and nuns in tax-exempt temples. It's already illegal. Piling on new laws while the old ones get broken with impunity is a pointless exercise in Beltway sanctimony. Campaign finance reform is a joke, and fund-raising criminals like Maria Hsia are getting the last laugh.