Here Today, Gandhi Tomorrow?

Amazing tale of Walnut Creek man who gave Clinton $325,000; immunity possible for congressional testimony

As he awaits trial on federal mail fraud charges at his Walnut Creek home, Yogesh Kothari Gandhi faces what may become the most important confidence game of his long and artful career.

He must convince federal law enforcement officials that he deserves immunity from criminal prosecution in exchange for information to be provided to a congressional committee investigating campaign finance irregularities.

Gandhi, suspected since 1996 of being an illegal conduit for $325,000 in foreign contributions to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, was arrested last week on mail fraud charges that carry a potential prison sentence of five years. Now, according to Gandhi's unusually outspoken lawyer and a spokesman for the congressional committee investigating illegal campaign donations, House staffers hope to use information gleaned from Gandhi to bring their probe closer to Clinton's inner circle. If Gandhi manages to convince the investigators he is valuable enough, he may get his freedom.

If he doesn't, it could be the end of what seems to have been an illustrious career as a con man.

"They want pressure on Clinton's campaign people," says Gandhi's lawyer, Peter Coleridge, a Martinez criminal attorney. "They want to be able to go to [Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin 'Charlie'] Trie and say, 'Look, don't lie to us, because Mr. Gandhi said this, so don't lie to us, because you're looking at a six-year prison beef, so talk to us about Clinton.' "

But an odd pair of lawsuits filed in federal court here last fall indicate that Gandhi may have a hard sell ahead of him. The suits, overlooked by the press until now, read as a sort of elaborate admission that Gandhi was a launderer of foreign money. The lawsuits also suggest, however, that Gandhi is not the most valuable of witnesses, credibility-wise. His court filings contain page after page of what appear to be exaggerations, distortions, or whole-cloth fabrications.

How Gandhi, an obscure Indian immigrant with a dandy's Old World charm, came to be a legal threat to the president of the United States is a bizarre tale, full of greed, duplicity, and artless faith. It's the tale of the special, honored place America sometimes reserves for those skilled at reinventing themselves. It is also the story of three titanic flimflam artists who in the end were brought down by their own greed and guile.

Indeed, if Gandhi is the Yeats of hosing the naive, his erstwhile partner, Yoshio Tanaka, is the Robert Frost, and his former patron, Hogen Fukunaga, the Wordsworth.

The three men appear to have conspired to attempt to influence the Vatican, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, UNESCO, and others as part of a plot to put Fukunaga atop a U.S. tele-evangelical empire where, it was hoped, he could bilk millions from American faithful.

According to the plan, as described in federal court papers, Tanaka, a Japanese health-food magnate, would channel money Fukunaga had raised through his huge Japanese cult following to Gandhi, who would use his phony Gandhi Memorial Foundation to bribe world leaders, who would then help elevate Fukunaga's stature. Suitably legitimized, Fukunaga would then triumphantly set up television broadcast operations in the United States that would surpass the efforts of Robert Schuller, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Lutheranism, Judaism ....

Everything seemed to be progressing astoundingly smoothly throughout the mid-1990s until the three men simultaneously went blood simple.

Fukunaga, the leader of a Japanese cult, began ripping off his Asian followers so egregiously and blatantly that they started filing lawsuits in Japanese courts and talking to reporters -- thus stalling Fukunaga's global plans.

Tanaka, the Japanese health-food magnate who Gandhi claims had latched onto Fukunaga as a "milking cow," began reneging on promised payments to Gandhi, whom he considered his stateside fixer.

And Gandhi, through the phony Gandhi Memorial Foundation, did a most amazing thing. He hired a small-town lawyer and filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco, charging Fukunaga with fraud. The case, along with a bizarre countersuit by Tanaka's high-priced law firm, outlines the three men's scheme in its entirety, pointing toward possible illegal acts and serving as potential evidence in the government's investigation into illegal contributions to the 1996 presidential campaign.

"He had a way of getting close to important people," says Don Shimer, the former executive director of Gandhi's foundation and now the alleged victim in a criminal wire-fraud case pending against Gandhi. "He had a way of touching them."

And, interviews and legal documents reveal, he had a way of putting the touch on them.

About the time Yogesh Gandhi came to the United States in the early 1980s, his friends recall him explaining, he experienced an epiphany: Yogesh Kothari would carry on the legacy of his Great-Great-Granduncle Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. That the Gandhi name had disappeared from his lineage generations earlier -- his ex-wife says Yogesh's great-great-grandfather was Mahatma Gandhi's brother -- proved little hindrance to his newfound mission. He simply changed his name from Yogesh Kothari to Yogesh Gandhi.

"He decided he had a vision and decided to see if he could do something for humanity," is how Theresa Marie Gandhi recalls her ex-husband's justification for the switch.

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