Calif. GOP lawmaker to return Buddhist donations

By STEVE LAWRENCE Associated Press, March 31, 2009

SACRAMENTO, CA (USA) -- A California lawmaker received more than $6,000 in prohibited campaign contributions from two Buddhist temples and a research organization associated with one of the temples, according to campaign finance reports on file with the state.

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, a freshman Republican from Chino Hills, received the donations over a roughly 18-month period starting in June 2007 from the Buddhist Temple of Chino Hills, the Bu-Sha Center and the Buta Buddhism Research Center.

All three filed papers with the Internal Revenue Service claiming 501c nonprofit, tax-exempt status as churches, which prohibits them from donating money to political campaigns.

The Bu-Sha Center, which also is a temple, and the Buta Buddhism Research Center have the same address in West Covina and the same chief executive officer, according to papers they filed with the secretary of state as nonprofits.

The donations are reminiscent of a controversy surrounding a fundraising event held at a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights in 1996. The event, which raised more than $100,000 for the Democratic National Committee, featured an appearance by then-Vice President Al Gore.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, a Republican group ran television ads criticizing Gore, the Democratic nominee, for attending the event. In that case, the Hsi Lai Temple agreed to pay federal fines to settle an IRS investigation of the temple's political activities.

A campaign
fundraiser, Maria Hsia, also was sentenced to three months of home confinement and 250 hours of community service for a money laundering scheme connected to the Hsi Lai case. Prosecutors said she arranged to reimburse individual donors with $65,000 in temple funds.

The IRS sent a letter to political party leaders last April, during the presidential primary campaign, reminding them of the ban on direct and indirect campaign activity by churches and other tax-exempt charities.

Hagman, a former mayor of Chino Hills, said he was unaware of the temple contributions until they were pointed out by The Associated Press.

"I have close to 700 donors...," he said. "Pretty much all of my fundraisers in the district were large-group type of things. We would not target anything like that (donations from tax-exempt organizations). It would be more like individuals that were invited."

He said professional firms handle his fundraising. He raised more than $1 million altogether for his 2008 campaign.

"I never touch a check," he said.

Hagman's chief of staff, Mike Spence, said Tuesday the assemblyman is in the process of returning the temple contributions. He said one of the campaign committees would have to raise money to refund the donations.

"We're trying to get this done as soon as we can," Spence said.

The Buta Buddhism Research Center gave $1,000 to Hagman on June 30, 2007. It also gave him $1,000 last October and again in November. The Bu-Sha Center donated $1,000 in July 2007 and then spent $1,980 in December 2007 for a campaign event for Hagman.

The Buddhism Temple of Chino Hills donated $150 last October.

Representatives of the three contributors said the donors were not aware the contributions were prohibited.

"They don't have that kind of knowledge...," said Tina Chiang, an accountant for the Bu-Sha Center and the Buta Buddhism Research Center. "They don't understand English very well."

Leamthong Silpanone, chief executive officer of the Buddhist Temple of Chino Hills, also said he was not aware of the donation ban.

"I should have given my own money," he said. "We don't know the law. Next time, we don't do it."

A spokesman for the IRS, Dean Patterson, said he could not comment on the case.