It was like old home week in the Bay Area — aging hippies congregating en masse for the Summer of Love anniversary, some of the great local ’60s rock bands making an appearance and the return of Norman Hsu to the arms of the local legal system.
Only Hsu’s return was unexpected, since he’s been on the lam for 15 years from state authorities after pleading no contest to felony grand theft for defrauding local Peninsula investors of $1 million. And by the time his days in court are over, someone may actually be able to answer the question of how a self-admitted criminal turned out to be one of the biggest Democratic Party fundraisers in recent years — without anyone knowing his background.
I realize presidential candidates cannot possibly understand who each of their favored financial rainmakers really is, but Hsu’s case bears extra scrutiny because it’s hard to believe that a known felon could fall through the cracks to become one of the biggest fundraisers for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. And it’s fairly remarkable that Hsu could maintain such a lavish, high-profile position without showing up on the radar of prosecutors — who generally take notice when one of their suspects goes AWOL for more than a decade.
If the U.S. Justice Department was not investigating possible campaign-fundraising violations by Hsu, one wonders how long he might have been operating as a New York City bundler with better connections than General Electric. Hsu was being scrutinized for donations from acquaintances of his in Daly City who gave money to the Clinton campaign — which, according to The Wall Street Journal, nearly matched the same amount and dates listed as contributions from Hsu.
But raising your profile among legal authorities is not a good idea if you’ve been running from the law for more than a decade, which is how Hsu found himself surrendering to authorities in San Mateo last week for his earlier conviction and was subsequently released on $2 million bail. There aren’t a lot of people who can afford to put up the cash for a $2 million bail, but clearly there aren’t a lot of people like Hsu.
He was facing three years in jail before vanishing after his grand theft plea in what prosecutors said was a Ponzi scheme to hoodwink investors. Indeed, the attorney who handled the original case said Hsu essentially stole $1 million — which must seem like peanuts to all the people he’s managed to convince in the ensuing years to give generously to their (and his) favorite candidates.
Prosecutors have said they believed Hsu fled to Hong Kong after entering his grand theft plea, which involved a business in which he raised money from investors to import latex gloves from Asia. He was listed as a managing director of a Hong Kong-based exporter, but just about everything involving him in the last decade remains a mystery.
He has told people who knew him in New York that he was working in the fashion industry, but many key groups involved in the apparel business say they’ve never heard of him. Still, it hasn’t stopped many prominent supporters from going to bat for him. Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator now serving as the head of New School University in New York, insisted that Hsu is a clothing designer, which may explain why he placed him on the university’s board of trustees. But Hsu resigned that post last week after the fundraising allegations surfaced.
For a guy who was apparently running from the law, Hsu may be a record-holder as the nation’s highest-profile fugitive. He’s raised money for candidates on both coasts, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and contributed to District Attorney Kamala Harris’ campaign; he’s also been very active in New York State politics, giving more than $50,000 to the state Democratic Party.
It’s too early to tell what kind of impact his role will have on national Democratic politics, but clearly the ripples are widening. Several of the candidates who enjoyed Hsu’s financial support are now backing away from him, saying they will give his contributions to charity. Yet there’s little doubt that investigators are anxious to dig deep into Hsu’s fundraising operation, especially in light of his shady past.
This much is certain — we’re about to find out a lot more about Hsu in the coming days and months, starting with how the judicial system views his odds as a flight risk with a bail reduction hearing in Redwood City today. Hsu is still facing up to three years in a California prison for his past actions, and his attorney has vowed that he would deal “forthrightly’’ with his legal issues.
After 15 years, delay doesn’t seem like a viable option.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at email@example.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.
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