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.
For Theresa Marie, an adrift young idealist, an introduction to Gandhi in Los Angeles in 1983 was the fulfillment of her “destiny to find a way to bring peace to the world.” Together she and Yogesh planned a U.S. reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of nonviolent activism.
They planned a cross-country march in 1984 patterned after Mahatma Gandhi's legendary salt march, gathering a group of American dreamers to hike from Los Angeles to New York. They went from town to town, delivering the newly christened Yogesh Gandhi's message of pacifism, peace, and love. The fervent loyalty Gandhi earned from members of that march was a paean to the well-dressed Indian's uncanny power of persuasion.
“I thought he was a man with a lot of power,” recalls Don Conreaux, a New York yoga instructor who served as the group's support-vehicle driver, advance man, and foot masseur. “Somewhere in 1984, we all took off from Los Angeles. They just improvised as it went. I kind of went ahead of the group. I let people know that the salt march was on its way. As they entered the city, I would have the peace gong.” [page]
That same year, Theresa Marie and Yogesh married, and Mrs. Gandhi prepared and filed the paperwork necessary to create a California nonprofit corporation in the name of Yogesh's great-granduncle, dedicated to teaching “oneness, truth, love, peace and nonviolence,” according to government documents.
Early on, Gandhi seemed to have a keen grasp of the foundation's lucrative potential.
“When I brought people in who knew about nonprofit law, we would tell him what the law was, and he wouldn't obey it. He just didn't care,” Theresa Marie recalls.
In 1988, Theresa Marie wrote a letter to Nancy Reagan saying the president deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for disarming Russia. Mrs. Reagan was similarly disarmed, and according to records at the Ronald Reagan Library, Gandhi met with the president Oct. 13, 1988, to present the Gandhi Peace Award.
It was a watershed moment, Theresa Marie recalls. Gandhi possesses piercing eyes, a booming, authoritative voice, and pedigree manners — the components of near irresistible charm.
“They told him he could only have a minute and a half, but he charmed President Reagan. He basically took over the whole proceeding,” she says.
Subsequent awards were to prove less auspicious. In 1990, Gandhi convinced a group of financial backers to accompany him to Moscow for what he said was a scheduled presentation of the award to Mikhail Gorbachev.
In what was to become a Gandhi Foundation modus operandi, Gandhi claimed close contacts in Moscow that proved ephemeral. Gandhi finally got the award to Gorbachev by pushing through the crowd at a speech and thrusting a Mahatma Gandhi statuette on the Russian leader.
“The statuette was stuffed in his arms,” Theresa Marie recalls.
Despite such periodic catastrophes, by 1995 Gandhi had performed enough legitimate-looking publicity stunts to poise himself for greatness. Freed from his wife's moralistic fetters as the result of a 1991 divorce, Gandhi undertook a project that would catapult his odd, quasi-charity onto a world stage.
Somehow, Gandhi met Hogen Fukunaga, a Japanese cult leader with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, delusions of limitless grandeur, and an odd attraction to the self-styled Bay Area spiritual leader.
By the mid-1990s, Fukunaga's Ho-No Hana San Pou-gyo organization had attracted more than 100,000 followers who contributed millions to the construction of a luxurious Tensei Village in Japan, near Mount Fuji.
But things had begun to sour for Fukunaga in Japan. His adherents were starting to sue for damages related to their treatment by the sect or for money they felt they were owed. By 1996 there were more than 400 such cases pending in Japanese courts, according to news reports, and Fukunaga needed to plow new ground.
In the spring of 1995, Fukunaga met with Gandhi and Yoshio Tanaka, who owned a health-care products business with operations in the U.S. and Japan. According to documents filed in San Francisco federal court, Tanaka hired Gandhi to “provide certain public relation type services to benefit Fukunaga.”
The services involved preparing Fukunaga to repeat the success stateside he had achieved in Japan. According to a proposal Gandhi presented to Tanaka, the trio would lay the groundwork during 1995 and 1996 to take the United States by storm. Gandhi would lead an unorthodox and expensive worldwide publicity campaign, according to the plan. Then, Fukunaga would become a key U.S. player in “Televangelism: A $2.5 Billion Industry,” according to a prospectus Gandhi allegedly faxed to his Japanese patrons, which is now listed as “Exhibit A” in federal court.
With Gandhi as their fixer, they would take over the world.
And for a brief period, it seemed they would.
In September 1995, Gandhi made arrangements for a formal presentation of the Gandhi Peace Prize to Fukunaga in Bombay, India. That same year Gandhi arranged for visits between Fukunaga and the pope, Mother Teresa, and the Indian religious leader Saibaba. The next May, apparently by dint of a $325,000 contribution to the Democratic National Committee, Gandhi arranged for a photo opportunity with Bill Clinton.
But this auspicious moment would also begin the trio's downfall. As journalists and government investigators began to scrutinize the fund-raising practices of Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign, the Democrats were compelled to return the money to Gandhi because the donation appeared to come from a foreign source — Tanaka — which would make the contribution illegal.
Press coverage that fall in the Los Angeles Times focused on the businesslike nature of Gandhi's foundation, accusations that Fukunaga had used his sect to bilk millions from followers, and the odd role Tanaka played as conduit between the two men.
Suddenly, Gandhi couldn't blithely pass Fukunaga off as a “prominent Japanese environmentalist” to world leaders. And the whole Gandhi-Fukunaga-Tanaka scheme came to take on a disastrously tawdry air in the minds of potential U.S. converts — even by the vulgar standards of American televangelism.
The gig was up, it seemed.
As Fukunaga and Tanaka's plans for global conquest began to dissolve, Tanaka was forced to take note of a brutal fact: The man he had hired to con the world appeared to have actually conned him.
Gandhi promised he would bribe the Vatican, bribe Mother Teresa, bribe the United Nations, and even, perhaps, bribe enough people to earn Fukunaga a Nobel Peace Prize. In his court filings, Gandhi claims to have made good on his promise by earning an audience with the pope as the result of a donation of $1 million worth of rare books to the Vatican. Mother Teresa was similarly softened up with a $50,000 donation, Gandhi claims. The former prime minister of Iceland and Henry Kissinger were among figures slated for similar largess, according to Tanaka's filings. According to Gandhi's recollection as recorded in federal court, he was to receive a $1 million payment from Fukunaga for each “project.” [page]
Fukunaga did appear in photos with the pope and Mother Teresa. But there is no proof that such quid pro quo exchanges actually took place. The Vatican press office did not respond to an SF Weekly request for an explanation, but the fact is that the pope gives thousands of audiences every year, as did Mother Teresa before her death.
And arrangements supposedly made by Gandhi that would have required any real connections or influence prove ephemeral.
According to Tanaka's filings, the Japanese businessman gave Gandhi $300,000 to make arrangements “regarding to Nobel Peace Prize” to Henry Kissinger Associates. Kissinger's assistant says there is no record of communication with Gandhi. Tanaka says Gandhi claimed he used $300,000 for a payment to former Iceland Prime Minister Steingrinur Hermannsson for a Fukunaga-aggrandizing “project.” In an interview, Hermannsson says Gandhi did nothing more than donate $25,000 to a sustainable development conference he held two years ago.
“He told me that he was the same man who had given a peace prize recognition to Reagan and Bush,” Hermannsson recalls.
Gandhi claims to have hatched his initial plans with Fukunaga at a June meeting in Tokyo between Gandhi, Fukunaga, Tanaka, and Eldon Griffiths, the writer and president of the Orange County World Affairs Council, an organization that holds conferences dealing with international issues.
“I think I met him the only time in the lobby of my hotel,” Griffiths recalls, describing the meeting as a brief, chance encounter during which the two exchanged small talk. “It was a very casual encounter. … I did not believe that Yogesh had any close connection with the Gandhi family at all. It seems to me that he was overegging his importance.”
Tanaka now believes the same, and is demanding $12 million in damages for fraud.
Gandhi alleges in his own filings that the true con man was Tanaka, who hoped to bilk millions from Fukunaga by exploiting the cult leader's vanity.
Tanaka's attorneys refused to comment on the case, and refused to arrange an interview with Tanaka. Fukunaga's organization could not be reached for comment.
While Bill Clinton and the rest of Democratic Washington celebrate the growing public relations problems of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, another long-dormant investigation continues to rumble along.
Staffers with Republican Rep. Dan Burton's Reform and Oversight Committee, with cooperation from the Justice Department, have been employing the sort of hardball investigative tactics Starr has made famous.
Already, federal prosecutors have cut a deal with Clinton fund-raiser Johnny Chung in which Chung has pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions in exchange for cooperation with investigators.
Gandhi may be next on the list.
“He, one hopes, will give some information, and I think it's a matter of some back-and-forth, in which he provides some information in order to see what we will be able to gain for us,” says Will Dwyer, spokesman for the committee.
Much of that back-and-forth took place during a nine-hour, March 28 skull session in San Francisco between federal officials and Gandhi, sources close to Gandhi say.
Last week Gandhi's lawyer held out offers, tendered counteroffers, and otherwise negotiated with committee staffers on the question of how much Gandhi will be willing to say, and at what cost, he says.
“I'm busting their balls as much as they are mine. You're dealing with the federal government — you'll try to get an answer from the House, then you have to get an answer from Justice, and they won't call you back,” says Coleridge.
So Yogesh Gandhi, the Walnut Creek man who has conned the powers of the world, is left to cut his ultimate deal: He must convince federal officials that his ties to the Democratic National Committee were extensive enough and scandalous enough — and his testimony truthful enough — to be worth his freedom.
And given Gandhi's talents and reputation, he just might be up to it.
Says Theresa Marie Gandhi: “He's a very charming man.