Democratic fund-raiser invokes JCC hoops in defense of Gore

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WASHINGTON — Across America there are tens of thousands of retired basketball players who learned their moves on the hardwood of a Jewish community center.

One ex-hoopster's past found its way this week to center stage of the Senate hearings on Democratic fund-raising improprieties.

Richard Sullivan, the former Democratic National Committee finance director, who identifies as an Irish Catholic, invoked his teenage JCC basketball squad to defend himself against a key charge of illegal Democratic fund-raising.

Sullivan, the first witness before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday, told the panel that one of the primary reasons he signed off on a speech last year by Vice President Al Gore at a Buddhist temple was his belief that the site was a Buddhist version of a JCC.

Sullivan testified that he was "under the impression that it was a Buddhist-oriented community center."

Answering questions from Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sullivan admitted the event gave him "pause."

But, he added, "growing up, I played basketball in a league, and we played in what was called a Jewish community center that was sponsored by the Jewish community" in Columbia, S.C.

"So that was what I was envisioning."

Gore's speech and the money it raised have landed the vice president in what at best is an embarrassing situation. DNC fund-raisers face accusations that they broke numerous election campaign laws.

Most JCCs are not categorized as religious institutions, which are banned from political fund-raising activities.

When asked for a comment, the director of Jewish education at the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, said: "We have no strong position on the campaign-finance reform issue."

"But things have changed" since Sullivan was a teenage JCC athlete, added Rabbi Mark Charendoff, whose group serves as the parent body for 285 JCCs in the United States and Canada.

"If he played now, after a game he could walk into a class on the Jewish ethical approach of charitable giving," he said, implying that the DNC wouldn't be in so much trouble if he had.

Jeffrey Turner, captain of a JCC basketball team at the new downtown District of Columbia JCC, added that he's always looking for new talent.