Returned to Spender

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Returned to Spender

When the DNC sent back their colossal contributions, these donors dropped off the MoJo 400 list

by Keith Hammond and Laurel Druley

April 17, 1997

In the biggest regurgitation of campaign cash in our nation’s history, the Democratic National Committee has now returned more than $3 million in suspicious and illegal contributions from the 1996 election cycle, much of it solicited by the DNC’s star fundraiser John Huang, who is now under investigation by the Justice Department and the Congress. As a result, some fascinating characters fell off the Mother Jones 400 tabulation this year — but it didn’t seem fair that they should evade scrutiny. The following are the fishy contributors, their personal political giving in the 1995-1996 election cycle, and the rank they held on the MoJo 400 — before they got their money back.

[#6.] Soraya and Arief Wiriadinata, Arlington, Va. $452,000. Party: D.

Virgin donors before 1996, this Indonesian homemaker and her landscape architect husband can treat themselves to a new lawn sprinkler for their humble suburban home — if they ever come back to the U.S. The DNC has returned their whopping $450,000 in contributions, solicited by John Huang.

Although the Wiriadinatas were legally permanent U.S. residents, they moved back to Jakarta in December 1995, yet continued to send hundreds of thousands of dollars to the DNC from overseas — and campaign finance law prohibits foreign nationals from giving unless they’re legal “immigrants.” DNC initially said these contributions were legal, but now claims they were “deemed inappropriate” because the Wiriadinatas failed to file 1995 tax returns. (The DNC told the Washington Post that trusty John Huang had assured them the Wiriadinatas planned to return to the U.S. and file late tax returns.)

But there’s another serious reason the Wiriadinatas’ giving may be “inappropriate” or downright illegal: Where did a landscaper-homemaker duo get nearly half a million bucks? Soraya is the daughter of the late Hashim Ning, a powerful Indonesian industrialist and a major business partner in Mochtar Riady’s Lippo Group empire — Huang’s ex-employer. Like the Riadys, Ning was no stranger to Democrats in high places; while hospitalized in Washington in the fall of 1995, he received two get-well letters from President Clinton, sent at the request of James Riady. The Charleston, W.Va. Sunday Gazette-Mail reported last year that Arief Wiriadinata even claimed Al Gore visited Ning’s bedside, inspiring the Wiriadinatas to fund the Democrats; Gore denies it.

Ning died in December 1995, and the Wiriadinatas returned to Jakarta, where they have refused to comment on their political giving. Last fall the Indonesian newspaper Daily Kompas found Arief working at Sea World Indonesia — built by the Lippo Group.

[#15.] Yogesh K. Gandhi, 47, Orinda, Calif. $325,000. Party: D.

Would Mahatma Gandhi be proud of his great-grandnephew today? Not bloody likely. Yogesh Gandhi, another first-time political giver, is president of the Gandhi Memorial International Foundation, a shadowy non-profit enterprise devoted in principle to “promoting the philosophy of non-violence.” In practice it seems mainly to promote Yogesh, by exploiting his distant relative’s good name. The DNC accepted his massive contribution in May 1996, but dropped it like a hot potato just two days after the November election.

The story, reported largely by the Los Angeles Times, begins in 1995, when Gandhi allied himself with another opportunist by the name of Dr. Hogen Fukunaga, a Japanese multimillionaire, self-help author, and preacher of Tensei, an empty-pockets-at-the-door sort of sect. (Among Fukunaga’s spiritual insights: The navel is “the core of everything about the person.”) When Fukunaga became the subject of hundreds of his followers’ legal complaints in Japan, he sought to expand the faith to the U.S., where he met Yogesh Gandhi.

To polish Fukunaga’s image, Gandhi arranged his appearances at high-profile events with prominent figures including Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. Then came Bill Clinton’s turn: Gandhi contacted the White House requesting an official presentation of the “Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Award” (a bust of Mohandas K. Gandhi and $100,000 in cash) to Clinton for his remarkable contribution to the “betterment of mankind.”

The White House declined, but word got around to Huang at the DNC, and soon Gandhi, Fukunaga and friends were welcomed to a May 1996 fundraiser in Washington. The price: $5,000 a plate. Gandhi’s contribution: a colossal $325,000, more than half the total raised at the event. So moved by the gift was Huang that he arranged a quickie award ceremony in a private room with President Clinton and the Gandhi party, memorialized in a now-infamous photo. The DNC, after some hesitation, banked the check.

Three months later Gandhi was in court, accused of failing to pay wages to a foundation employee. He testified that he was not a U.S. citizen, that he had no assets in the U.S., and that he was living off his brother’s credit card. Had the DNC run a computer check on his name (a routine dropped in 1994) it would have found that his foundation hadn’t filed the required tax returns for years and that a grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi had accused Yogesh of using the family name for “non-Gandhian purposes.” Two days after the election, the DNC returned Ghandi’s donation because he declined to offer proof that it was his own money.

[#23.] Johnny C. Chung, 42, Torrance, Calif. $289,000. Party: D.

A Taiwanese-American engineer, Johnny Chung’s fortunes changed in 1992, when his faltering fax company, Automated Intelligent Systems, began to attract foreign capital with a novel lure — photo tours of the White House. Chung became a self-proclaimed fundraiser for the Democrats, using his political access to impress investors from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong who loved to have their picture taken with the president. One lucky guest, the New York Times reported, was the chairman of a Chinese beer company who later used the photo of himself with Bill and Hillary Clinton to advertise his suds. Chung visited the White House at least 50 times; during one visit he even handed a $50,000 check to Hillary’s chief of staff, Margaret A. Williams, days before he brought a group of Chinese officials and businessmen to a Clinton radio address and lunch at the White House. The group included Wang Jun, a Chinese arms dealer. The DNC is returning Chung’s $275,000 in contributions because of “insufficient information” about its origins; the truth seems to be that Chung was a two-bit middleman for wealthy Asian businessmen. Deemed a “hustler” by a watchful National Security Council analyst, Chung is officially “no longer welcome” at the White House.

[#83.] Pauline Kanchanalak, 47, Washington, D.C. $192,000. Party: D.

A citizen of Thailand and legal resident of the U.S., Kanchanalak is an international business consultant who specializes in setting up U.S.-Thai joint ventures — and White House access. The DNC returned $253,500 to Pauline in November after she told them the money belonged not to her, but to her mother-in-law, Praitun Kanchanalak; Congress is now investigating whether Pauline was really just a front for illegal foreign contributors.

Kanchanalak’s lobbying firm, Ban Chang International, is partly owned by a Thai real estate conglomerate, and she has tirelessly promoted Thai interests in Washington. After giving $30,000 to the DNC in the spring of 1994, Kanchanalak phoned John Huang, then working at the Commerce Department; she was setting up a U.S.-Thai Business Council and wanted President Clinton and the Thai prime minister to come to its inaugural meeting. Huang pulled some strings, Clinton and the prime minister dropped by as planned, and two weeks later Kanchanalak kicked in another $32,500. She later attended two White House coffees with the president — including one with Huang and three top executives from her Thai client the Charoen Pokaphand Group — where the main topic was U.S.-China policy; that same day she and her sister-in-law gave $135,000 to the DNC. In all she would visit the White House at least 26 times.

Her shenanigans helped scuttle National Security Council adviser Anthony Lake’s nomination to head the CIA, when a Senate confirmation committee demanded to know why the NSC, which initially wanted to scrap Clinton’s meeting with the Business Council, later flip-flopped and permitted it. It turns out Kanchanalak had met three times with NSC’s top Asia specialist Sandy Kristoff. According to Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House committee investigating improper fundraising, Kanchanalak is now believed to have left the country.

[#215.] Farhad Azima, Kansas City, Mo. $120,500. Party: Both.

The Iranian-born chairman and CEO of the Aviation Leasing Group, Azima and his company gave $143,741 to the DNC — and the DNC is giving it all back for reasons that are still unclear. Why would the DNC classify his donations as “deemed inappropriate”? Azima’s companies have tangled often with federal regulators: In 1983 the Federal Aviation Administration suspended operations of his Global International Airways for safety reasons — one of its planes carrying TV crews accompanying Reagan to Brazil had made a crash landing — and it subsequently went bankrupt. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. sued Azima and other directors in 1984 when their Indian Springs State Bank in Kansas City collapsed from insider loans and deposit fraud; Azima’s companies had been heavy borrowers. Another of his companies, Buffalo Airways of Waco, Texas, settled a tax lien with the Internal Revenue Service this year, and is still fighting the Justice Department over a $1.4 million bill for cargo service provided to the Pentagon during the Gulf War.

But Azima’s not just an adversary of federal regulators, he’s an indiscriminate buddy of whoever’s in power. A White House insider under Reagan and Bush, he has also cozied up to Clinton at three White House coffees. One of his jets was used in 1985 to ship arms to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages, and more recently his planes were chartered during the 1996 campaigns by then-DNC chair Don Fowler — 46 times — and by his old friend and former lawyer Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.). On the ground, Azima held one fundraiser at his home for Thompson, and another for the Democrats at a Kansas City hotel on his own birthday — guest-of-honor Clinton led the group in singing the inevitable song.

Azima’s bipartisan largesse may pay off in immunization from at least one federal inquiry, as Thompson now chairs the Senate committee investigating fundraising abuses. Then again, it may not: Thompson recently returned the $3,000 his campaign received from the Azima family.

Like Father, Like Son

Seagram’s ruling family fuels the Democrats — but gives heavily to the Republicans, too

[Rank Unknown] Edgar Bronfman, Sr. 67, New York, N.Y. [Contributions Unknown] Party: D.

Chairman of the Montreal-based alcohol and entertainment giant The Seagram Company Ltd., president of the World Jewish Congress, and father of Edgar M. Bronfman Jr. (#5, see “Movies ‘n’ Shakers“), the elder Bronfman was also a major contributor to the Democrats. Since handing over the family business to his son, Bronfman Sr. has busied himself searching for the lost wealth of Holocaust victims, and pouring his own wealth into politics.

The DNC did not return any of Bronfman Sr.’s money; we suspect he belongs on the MoJo 400, but his total could not be determined from FEC records — many of which lacked a handy “Sr.” or “Jr.” appellation — and Seagram Co. told Mother Jones that Bronfman Sr. would not confirm which contributions were his own. Further investigation revealed that the Bronfmans’ personal giving is just half the story; Seagram’s U.S. booze division Joseph E. Seagram & Sons gave a massive $490,000 in soft money to both the Democratic and Republican parties. And while that may seem like a lot to ordinary voters, it’s small change to the Bronfmans, whose family fortune is estimated at $2.7 billion.

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