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Public Eye

Suma Ching Hai
Much Ado:
Clinton's legal
defense fund
returned donations
received from
the Supreme
Master's followers.

Supreme Ordeal

Eye watchers and readers may recall that in March, Metro reporter Rafer Guzmán interviewed Suma Ching Hai for a cover story, during one of the cult leader's rare visits to San Jose. The mysterious, Vietnamese-born "Supreme Master" spoke to 600 of her followers, mostly recent Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants, on the "key to immediate enlightenment" at the San Jose Red Lion Hotel. As it turns out, the self-proclaimed Buddhist messiah may have given out some political advice at the same time. The very next day, in Washington, D.C., Charles Yah Lin Trie, a Taiwanese businessman and fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, delivered a bundle of checks worth $450,000 to President Clinton's Legal Defense Trust, much of it from followers of Suma Ching Hai. And according to group investigator Loren Berger, many of the personal checks, cashier's checks and money orders under scrutiny actually came from San Jose, where Suma Ching Hai has one of her largest followings outside of Taiwan. ...

Just last Tuesday, Michael Cardozo, executive director of the legal defense fund, announced that the contributions had been returned, much to the dismay of local followers. The reason given by Cardozo was that the donations looked suspicious: Money orders supposedly given by people in different cities had sequential numbers, while some checks were written in identical handwriting. ...

The xenophobic reaction of the Clinton trust, driven by scandal attack dogs in Congress, has angered some local Ching Hai followers who say they're just trying to support the president. Local Ching Hai representative Pamela Millar of Palo Alto tells Eye that members of the group pooled their checks after Suma Ching Hai suggested sending a donation to the fund "if you want to help the president." Millar, a group member for seven years, says she sent a personal check for $1,000, the maximum amount permitted by the fund. She stresses that "Master" Suma Ching Hai never directly told her followers to send money. "She made an announcement saying there is a scandal trying to blackball the president," says Millar, who works as a computer consultant. "We said OK, and we found a way to help." ...

Millar's check was among the ones returned en masse by Cardozo with a letter questioning the source of the money. "I am offended by that because I am an American, and there's no reason why I should not be able to help my president," Miller says. "It is our right as citizens. I don't know why it should be a scandal," she adds. ...

Another representative of Ching Hai, David Bui of San Jose, says that support for the president is widespread in the group. "We usually vote for him," he explains, adding that though Suma Ching Hai was born in Vietnam and lives in Taiwan, she is an "honorary U.S. citizen" who "votes in Hawaii," and "usually votes for Clinton." ... "We did not give the money for [the Clintons'] personal use," insists Bui, and reiterated that members "vote for him not because of Master but because they think he's a good guy." ...

As reported by Guzmán, ["Immaterial Girl," March 28, 1996] Ching Hai's followers practice what is called the Quan Yin method of meditation, which involves meditating for two to three hours a day, and a rigid vegan diet which excludes all meat, eggs and dairy products. Ching Hai's organization derives most of its income selling to its followers thousands of videos, CDs, magazines and tapes--all bearing the image of the Master, smiling crookedly due to a slightly paralyzed cheek. Ching Hai also oversees a worldwide chain of vegetarian Chinese restaurants, including one here in San Jose, the Suma Ching Hai International Association Vegetarian House on the corner of 12th and E. Santa Clara streets, where David Bui works. ...

This week Metro fielded calls from national press scrambling to get a fix on the elusive Suma Ching Hai and her flock, as yet unreported by the mainstream press. The SJ Merc might have had little to add on the subject had it not tapped the expertise of normally byline-less former Metro managing editor Steve Buel, who some people may think has fallen into a black hole but actually now helps hold down the Merc's city desk and was credited at the end of the Post pickup as having "contributed to this report." (Memo to Steve: Write again soon!)

More on the Suma Ching Hai/Clinton tie:

The Washington Post on Clinton's knowledge of the fishy campaign funds.

CNN's All Politics Web site reports Clinton's denial of the Trie connections.

Mother Jones says Charles Trie is number 182 on its list of the top 400 campaign contributors.

Mother Jones writer L.J. Davis says Clinton's Indonesian money scandal may be the real thing.

Whimsical Chair

In the what-were-they-thinking department this week comes news that state Senate chief Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) has appointed San Jose's own version of Gandhi, Sen. John Vasconcellos, to chair the criminal procedures committee. Eye-watchers may recall Vasco's prodigious efforts to link low self-esteem to criminal behavior back in the '80s. The relatively new Senate committee handles a myriad of crime-related bills covering the courts, prisons and drugs. One Vasco fan couldn't help but chuckle upon learning of his reinvention as a crimebuster. "Maybe nobody should go to prison if it hurts their self-esteem. I hate to kid Vasconcellos, but it always makes me nervous when he levitates using his special powers." ... Meanwhile, Reeps are spinning that Vasco's appointment to criminal procedures was Lock-yer's payback to trial lawyers who backed the Senate prez. ... It's an odd choice, to say the least. While in the Assembly, Vasco opposed everything from building more prisons to the Three Strikes law. "From a policy perspective, it's going to be a graveyard for Republican bills. At least, that's how we're looking at it," grumbles John Grimley, an aide to minority whip Ray Haynes.

Accidental Billionaire

"No comment" is the big announcement from Apple HQ when asked to confirm loose chatter that exiled Apple co-founder and former company chairman Steve Jobs is planning a homecoming of sorts. Eye has picked up intelligence that Apple is gearing up for a major announcement the first week of January that likely will involve a deal with Jobs. Industry wags are abuzz with speculation that Apple, in search of a new operating system for its next generation of computers, is bargaining to buy or license NextStep from Jobs. If true, it would be sweet revenge for Jobs, who after founding the computer company got replaced by John Sculley in a board coup. Sculley enjoyed great success for a while before nearly driving Apple off a cliff and losing his job. Jobs formed Next Inc. and bombed by marketing black computers a few years before they came into style. But he became an accidental billionaire by investing in an unknown computer animation company founded by director George Lucas, which wound up producing a movie called Toy Story.

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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