Last week in Washington, D.C., the Republican Party held the single biggest political fund-raiser in American history, a lavish black-tie affair that raised $9 million. The largest donation--$400,000--came from Michael Kojima, a mysterious Japanese-American businessman from Los Angeles who sat at the head table with President and Barbara Bush.
The next day, party stalwarts, reporters and prominent Japanese-American businessmen began asking each other, "Who is Michael Kojima?"
The Republican Party, the party of traditional family and business values, isn't going to like the answers.
For starters, Kojima's two teen-age sons call him a "con man."
His company, International Marketing Bureau, from whose assets he told fund-raisers the donation came, is nine months delinquent on its state tax return. Moreover, records show, it is run out of the office of his wife's student exchange program--a purportedly charitable endeavor incorporated for "public benefit."
When one of Kojima's several ex-wives heard about her husband's generous donation this week, she burst into tears. Kojima, she said, still owes her $100,000--not to mention child support payments she says he failed to make over the years.
"He doesn't even support his own sons," said Soon Kojima, a South Bay garment designer who has a $100,000 court judgment against her ex-husband. "How can he give so much to the Republican Party? I do not understand. I ask President Bush, please give money back. I would be very, very appreciative. My sons need (the money) for college."
Also chasing Kojima are North Carolina flounder fishermen, Indonesian bankers, Japanese shippers, and a Los Angeles shopping center chain. All told, the party's newest deep pocket appears to be well over $1 million in debt.
Kojima's questionable past exemplifies precisely the sorts of problems that have led to widespread calls for cleaning up the virtually unlimited flow of big-money contributions into political campaigns.
In theory, current federal law limits political contributions to $5,000. But in practice, loopholes allow virtually unlimited contributions. Congress recently passed a law to place some limits on those loopholes, but Bush is expected to veto the bill.
Kojima's large contributions started around the same time as his difficulties with the North Carolina fish company, in the summer of 1988. On Thursday, Carolina Pride Seafood Inc., filed a federal lawsuit in Raleigh, N.C., asserting that the two GOP committees, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, are legally obligated to hold the $400,000 in trust for the creditors. The suit also accuses Kojima of fraud.
The lawsuit was filed after their attorney, Deyan Ranko Brashich, read about the mystery man in the newspaper in a New York pub the day after the fund-raiser.
"I slammed the bar with my open palm and probably said a couple of unmentionable expletives," Brashich said. "He walked away with $280,000 of my client's money."
Jeff Scott, a Los Angeles attorney for Indonesia-based Bank of Lippo, says he plans to consult with his client to determine whether he, too, should look to the Republican Party to reclaim some of its losses.
He said he has a judgment totaling about $600,000 against Kojima and some of his partners in a series of restaurant deals involving some of Los Angeles' best-known Chinese restaurants, among them Monkee and Mandarin Cove.
In both those legal cases, Kojima pleaded poverty. Two of his companies were plunged into bankruptcy. However, his creditors said they had all but given up looking for him--until he showed up with the President of the United States.
"As far as I knew he was a down on his luck restaurateur who had made a few bad business deals," said Scott. "Where in the world did he get the $400,000?"
Neither Kojima nor his attorney, T. J. Pantaleo of the Los Angeles law firm Cummings and Pantaleo, returned numerous telephone calls. "We don't know how to reach him," said a secretary, who explained that the firm rents out space to several "tenants" like Kojima.
When the flurry of questions arose last week, even a Republican spokesman could shed little light on Kojima's identity.
"We have a telephone number," explained dinner committee spokesman Rich Galen. "When we need to contact him (Kojima), we call and leave a message, and when he calls back, I don't have any idea where he's calling from."
He said the committee knew nothing about where Kojima lived or conducted his business, only that Kojima had said he "put together consortia for financing" of large-scale international projects like airports and telecommunications systems.
But White House officials almost certainly knew something about Kojima. One senior Administration official explained that a "due diligence" Secret Service security check routinely would have been conducted, if for no other reason than to make sure Kojima wasn't a danger to Bush over beef tenderloin and asparagus spears.
As it turns out, the honorary chairman of the dinner, former senator Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, had dinner with Kojima in Tokyo just three weeks earlier. Baker did not return telephone inquiries this week.
"He (Kojima) impressed me as someone who really would like to be a go-between on deals out of ego and profit," said a prominent American businessman who attended the dinner party with Baker and Kojima and his wife. "He dropped a lot of names and liked to give the impression he was in with everybody on both sides of the Pacific."
Later, the businessman added, he and Baker found themselves in a conversation that sounded like the punchline to an old joke, with each one saying, "I thought you knew him." He was curious enough about the man to send an inquiry about him to Los Angeles--an inquiry, he added, to which he had gotten no reply.
So, who is Michael Kojima?
The portrait painted by public records and interviews suggests a college-educated drifter--a onetime chef, salesman, utility company worker and would-be deal maker. In one 1975 job application, he listed the reason he had quit a store manager's job as "ambition."
His current company, International Marketing Bureau, shares a Little Tokyo office in the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center with the Assn. for Refining Cross-Culture, a student exchange program run by his wife, Chiey Nomura.
Nowhere in the two-room office is there any evidence of a marketing company.
"We've never heard of him," said Kats Kunitsugu, JACCC executive secretary, "He has no business (operating a business here) because ours is a nonprofit community center."
He has married at least five times--two Korean and three Japanese women, according to Soon Kojima, wife number two. Not until a Times interview late Wednesday did she reveal to her sons Tom, 17, and Jerry, 19, that they had at least three other half-siblings. Until now, she said, she had tried to protect her sons from her father's "other lives."
Although Kojima has no known criminal record, his sons called him a "con man." Tom recalled taking off elementary school one day to stand guard at the family's bank to make sure their father didn't withdraw the family savings while their mother was working.
Jerry said: "He just kinda comes into our lives sometimes--when he's having money problems."
Their mother said she had married Kojima twice--the second time when he convinced her he had reformed. According to court records, when they were last divorced in August, 1990, a judge awarded her $100,000 plus child support. The $100,000, she said, was to repay savings he had taken in a purported attempt to avoid a bankruptcy.
One thing mother and sons remember about Kojima is his fascination for politicians.
"His pride and joy was he would always be talking to me and my brother and my mom about how he knows Bush," said Jerry.
Last Christmas Kojima sent out Christmas cards bearing a photo of him and his current wife with George and Barbara Bush. "Wishing you a world of peace," the card says. The photo appeared to be the standard sort routinely snapped in return for a minimum donation. (At the dinner last week such a snapshot cost $92,000.)
Available records show that Kojima has donated at least $532,000 since 1988, including at least $5,000 to the political action committee started by Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the Senate GOP leader. That check later was returned, apparently for insufficient funds.
"I have no reason to suspect there's anything shady," said JoAnne Coe, a longtime Dole aide. But, she added, "I don't recall how we ever became associated with the guy."
Galen, the spokesman for the President's Dinner, defended taking the contributions. "One could say you should require some further proof of where the money comes from" before taking a check as large as Kojima's, he said, "but that's not the way life is."
"It's a little difficult to cross-examine a man who's a major donor."
If a well-known mob boss such as John Gotti wanted to give money, fund-raisers would recognize his name, Galen agreed. But if someone with a less recognizable name offered to give money, it would probably be taken.
Asked about the appropriateness of taking money from a man with large outstanding claims against him, Galen said he saw nothing wrong with the practice.
"In the United States the past three or four years, there's nothing illegal about having had business reversals and then later being successful," he said. The dispute between Kojima and his creditors "is a private dispute between two businesses," he said, "we have nothing in it one way or the other."
Kojima's ex-wife, Soon, who said she voted for Bush in 1988 despite the fact that she is a registered Democrat, said, "Please tell him (Bush) Mike Kojima's sons need this money more than (the) Republican Party." If Bush refused to return the money, she said, she had a second request: to turn over her former husband's address.
Times staff writers Sonni Efron and David Rosenzweig contributed to this story.