"An American success story" was how Tongsun Park described himself when he first came to the attention of the media and the FBI, in 1977, with gifts of hundreds of thousands of dollars to prominent politicians in an influence-peddling scandal that came to be known as "Koreagate."
More than a quarter of a century later, the South Korean businessman is back in the news, the subject of a federal arrest warrant that alleges he acted as an intermediary with corrupt U.N. officials in an oil-for-food conspiracy orchestrated by then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The criminal complaint charges that Park received at least $2 million from Iraq, much of it in cash delivered by diplomatic pouch from Baghdad.
"Gift-giving was part of the culture for him," a former business partner said of Tongsun Park.
(Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post)
Dubbed the "Oriental Gatsby" by the media because of his lavish Georgetown parties, Park put together an impressive list of friends and clients over the years, including former Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega, U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards. His charm was legendary, as was his habit of disbursing white envelopes stuffed with as much as $20,000 in cash to congressmen as part of a lobbying campaign financed by South Korean intelligence.
"Washington is a marvelous city for someone like me," he told the House ethics committee in April 1978. "Where else could a foreigner, an outsider like myself, do the things I was able to do?"
Although the payments to congressmen caused a scandal, Park was never convicted of wrongdoing in a U.S. court. He fled to South Korea when news of the scandal broke, and charges of bribery and conspiracy were dropped after he agreed to return to the United States and testify before Congress. His biggest problems came with the Internal Revenue Service, which said he owed millions of dollars in back taxes for not reporting his commissions.
Although his name faded from the headlines, Park continued to shuttle between the United States, Europe and Asia. He remained a "member in good standing" of the exclusive George Town Club in Washington, scene of some of his greatest social triumphs in the late 1970s, said John Guttenberg Jr., the club's president.
"He is very pleasant, very gentlemanly, very charming," he said. "He travels a lot. I haven't seen him in a while, probably last fall."
Guttenberg was one of several Washington friends to express surprise over the latest legal troubles of Park, 70, who is said to be in poor health, suffering from diabetes. Many of those friends view Park as the victim of overzealous prosecutors and journalists competing to provide lurid details of political influence-peddling in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
"Gift-giving was part of the culture for him," said Wyatt Dickerson, a former business partner. "Every time he came to the U.S., he would bring presents for everyone he knew, whether they were congressmen or garage mechanics or servants. He didn't understand that you have to be careful about who you give presents to."
Others say that Park's ability to cultivate politicians and ply them with gifts was symptomatic of the "free lunch" culture that existed in Congress in the late 1970s. Several politicians were accused of accepting more than $200,000 from Park, but only one member, Rep. Richard T. Hanna (D-Calif.), went to prison for his role.
Park gained his entree into Washington society as a student at Georgetown University, where his classmates included Thomas H. Boggs Jr., son of a former House leader, who went on to become a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser and lobbyist. Boggs's law firm is representing Park in the oil-for-food case.
Robert D. Luskin, a lawyer for Patton Boggs, said Park rejects all charges of wrongdoing but declined to provide details of his contacts with Iraqi and U.N. officials or to say whether he would cooperate with the investigation. He said he "assumed" that Park is now in South Korea.
After the Koreagate scandal, Park continued to cultivate politicians, in the United States and abroad. He also kept in touch with friends such as Edwards, whom federal authorities accused of accepting $10,000 from Park. Park exported 1 million tons of Louisiana rice to Korea between 1966 and 1976.
In 2000, Park was spotted at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. At that time, he was reported to be living in the Dominican Republic, where he had petroleum and shipping interests. But he continued to travel to Washington, and was here as recently as last December, according to the FBI.