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Nun Changes Claims On Gift to Democrats

By Serge F. Kovaleski
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A Buddhist nun who initially claimed that a Democratic activist gave her $5,000 in small bills to donate to the Democratic party is now telling federal officials she gave her own money, according to sources familiar with her account.

Man Ya Shih said $5,000 she donated came from funds given to her by Buddhist followers she has met over the years in various countries, the sources said.

Shih's statement to the FEC is the latest twist in a bizarre chapter of the ongoing controversy over improper donations to the Democratic National Committee. The DNC's unusual fund-raiser in April at a branch of the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple, and Shih's donation in particular, provided some of the initial impetus for the FEC's ongoing inquiry into numerous donations solicited by one of the DNC's former top fund-raisers, John Huang. The DNC has returned nearly $1.5 million in donations handled by Huang, including Shih's, in the past two months.

In an Oct. 17 article, the Wall Street Journal quoted Shih as saying a woman she recognized as a Democratic activist and Buddhist devotee, but whose name she could not remember, approached her at the temple fund-raiser, handed her her $5,000 in cash and asked her to write a check to the DNC for the same amount.

Shih was quoted as saying that she agreed to the request when the activist explained to her that "someone donated some money and they don't want to use their own name, and so you represent them and donate the money to the Democratic Party." In subsequent interviews, Peter D. Kelly, a lawyer representing the temple, told The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times that Shih gave the same account to him.

Under federal election law, it is illegal to donate money through another person or entity in order to conceal the source of the contribution. The Justice Department, which is conducting its own review of the DNC's fund raising, is particularly interested in whether any DNC contributors donated other people's funds, officials there have said.

Following publication of the Journal's article, temple representatives told reporters that Shih left her home in Richardson, Tex., where she heads a temple branch, to attend a Buddhist retreat in Taiwan, and would not return until after the presidential election.

Shih has not been quoted publicly since, but sources said she has privately been telling associates for more than a month yhat she made the donation out of her own savings from "offerings" from Buddhist devotees who want to support her, and as well money from her family in Taiwan.

Sources said that Shih wrote the commission that she was not sure how to handle the Wall Street Journal reporter when he called to inquire about the fund-raiser. Shih wrote that she told the story about the Democratic activist giving her the cash simply to get the reporter off the phone. Shih has described this as a "harmless lie," a source said.

Thursday, Kelly declined to comment on Shih's FEC response, saying he does not have the authority to speak on her behalf any more because he no longer represents her. Shih's new lawyer, Ricky W. Poon, in Los Angeles, would only confirm that his client had filed a statement with the FEC.