The Republican Party, confronted with reports that a major contributor apparently owes more than $1 million in child support and business debts, on Friday placed the contributor's $400,000 donation in an escrow account until someone can figure out what to do with it, party officials said.
The contribution was removed from party coffers in response to news reports that the contributor, a mysterious Japanese-born American businessman who dined with President and Barbara Bush at the biggest political fund-raiser in American history April 28, was being sought by numerous creditors.
Among them are an incredulous ex-wife and two sons to whom he owes more than $100,000.
"The (fund-raisers) have referred the issue to legal counsel and will be getting legal advice about what to do," said Jan Baran, a lawyer handling the case for the GOP. "It all has to be sorted out."
The Times reported Friday that the businessman, Michael Kojima, is an elusive Los Angeles-based entrepreneur with a history of broken marriages and failed businesses.
His creditors, including his ex-wife, Soon Kojima, and her two sons of Harbor City, said they had given up searching for the purportedly poverty-stricken Kojima--until he showed up with the President.
On Friday, Bush avoided questions about the controversial contribution as he completed his two-day tour of riot-damaged Los Angeles. "No comment," a presidential press spokesman said when the subject was raised.
Back at the White House, aides tried to distance Bush from the increasingly embarrassing dilemma. Gary Foster, a White House spokesman, insisted that the fate of Kojima's money was out of Bush's hands, even though the event was named the President's Dinner and Bush presided over it.
The event, Foster said, was handled by an independent fund-raising committee headed by former Senate Republican leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee.
Baker, who had reportedly met Kojima while in Tokyo three weeks ago, was said by his office to be traveling and unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, another of Kojima's ex-wives came forward Friday, saying she has been searching for her ex-husband for five years in an attempt to get him to pay $700 a month in back child-support payments.
A Burbank beautician named Chong Kojima, 49, said she was stunned to see her ex-husband's picture in the newspaper Friday. She said the last time she saw him was five years ago, when he wrote her a $350 child-support check--which bounced. She said she had made numerous unsuccessful visits to authorities in hopes of forcing Kojima to support their children, Emily, 12, and Elisha, 11.
Once, she recalled, she met another of Kojima's wives, Soon, who came to their home seeking child-support payments. Soon Kojima, a garment contractor, has a $100,000 court judgment against Kojima.
The two women, who sympathized with each other's plights in interviews Friday, provided human faces to an otherwise bloodless debate over the virtually unlimited flow of big-money contributions into political campaigns.
In theory, 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 measure.
The question raised by both women, who are each supporting two children by working at small, struggling businesses, was how the $400,000 donation will be distributed--assuming it is turned over to creditors at all.
Will Bush give back money to Kojima's families, they asked, or to his former business associates, who also have court judgments against him?
Among those creditors are Lippo Bank, an Indonesia-based lender that helped finance some of Kojima's ill-fated Chinese restaurant ventures in Los Angeles, and a North Carolina fish company, whose products Kojima was importing to Japan about the time he began making his large donations to the Republican Party in 1988.
That company, Carolina Pride Seafood Inc., filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, asserting that two GOP groups, 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.
Jeff Scott, a Los Angeles attorney for Lippo Bank, which has the largest known judgment against Kojima--$600,000 owed by Kojima and a former business partner--said he is "aggressively pursuing" all avenues.
Asked whether Bush or White House officials had expressed a preference for how the money should be handled, Foster said, "We have not."
GOP officials said privately that the party would be happier to be rid of Kojima's money, but legally speaking, that may not be easy.
Funds from the dinner are slated to be distributed to the party's two congressional campaign committees, but the dinner committee has custody of the cash.
That committee may keep the funds until a court or some other third party determines whether any of Kojima's creditors have a legal claim to it, legal experts said.
Meanwhile, the man at the heart of the controversy has failed to surface despite widespread attempts to contact him in Tokyo and Los Angeles.
Although he reportedly travels to Tokyo on business about every three months, his Los Angeles-based International Marketing Bureau--the company from whose assets the $400,000 donation purportedly came--has no offices there. Neither Kojima nor the company is listed in Japan's largest corporate data base.
In Japan, Robert White, the local chairman of Republicans Abroad, said he has never heard of Kojima, and fears that Japanese businessmen who make large political contributions have unrealistic expectations that a quid pro quo will be forthcoming from the American recipient.
"They grew up in a society where you do buy favors," White said. "So I get nervous anytime they are involved in the American political process."
Becklund reported from Los Angeles and Lauter from Washington. Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Tokyo contributed to this story.