By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
ORONO, Minn. — A political newcomer and his wife have donated more than a half-million dollars to Democratic political entities and a pet cause — the orangutans at Como Zoo in St. Paul, a Watchdog Minnesota Bureau analysis of public records and media accounts show.
Indonesian native Johannes Marliem and his wife, Mai Chie Thor, continue to throw big money at Democrats, even though the couple is surrounded in controversy. Marliem was convicted of a gross misdemeanor in 2010, and a bank foreclosed on the couple’s home in 2009.
Marliem gave $225,000 to the 2013 Obama inauguration, more than doubling the $100,000 given by his closest rival, Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor donor Alida Rockefeller Messinger, Gov. Mark Dayton’s ex-wife. Marliem also raised $70,000 and made a $2,500 personal contribution to the 2012 Obama campaign.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Marliem in 2010 was convicted of theft by swindle in Hennepin County Court, a gross misdemeanor.
National Democrats got a case of recipient’s remorse.
Democratic National Committee official Brad Woodhouse told the Star Tribune, “The criminal background of this individual did not come up in the routine vetting conducted at the time of the contribution. This contribution would not have been accepted by the (Obama Victory Fund) if these facts had been known at the time.”
By the time Marliem’s contributions to the Obama inauguration came under scrutiny, the inaugural committee had been disbanded. A review of FEC records indicates Marliem’s inaugural contributions were not returned.
But a Watchdog Minnesota Bureau investigation has uncovered more recent donations, some $75,000 to state Democrat-affiliated groups.
A national expert on campaign finance reform from St. Paul says Minnesota Democrats should reconsider and reject Marliem’s money.
“Overall, the DFL loses some moral high ground on political donations taking money from him, and they should return the money,” said David Schultz, past president of Common Cause Minnesota and political analyst and professor at Hamline University.
It breaks down like this: In September 2013, Marliem donated $25,000 to the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. In December 2013, Marliem gave another $25,000 to WIN Minnesota, a major fundraising arm for state Democratic candidates and causes. On Christmas Eve, Marliem gave another $25,000 to the DFL party.
DFL party chairman Ken Martin and Adam Duininck, executive director of WIN Minnesota, did not respond to requests for comment.
“The DFL would be smart to return the money for a few reasons,” said Schultz. “… These large amounts create an appearance that a rich foreign national (although with a green card) is seeking improper influence in Minnesota politics or that he is seeking special favors or expects some type of return on his donations.”
Marliem is not the only big donor in the family. In the 2012 election cycle, Marliem’s wife eclipsed his generosity.
A Watchdog Minnesota Bureau review shows Thor, listed as a homemaker on Federal Election Commission records, raised $100,000 for the Obama Victory Fund 2012. Reports filed with the FEC show Thor sent two $50,000 donations to the Obama Victory Fund 2012 on June 4, 2012.
Their status as major Democratic donors reflects a remarkable turnaround in fortune from 2008.
In April of that year, a Coon Rapids moving and storage company sued Marliem in Hennepin County civil court over an unpaid bill. In August 2008, he was first charged by Hennepin County with theft by swindle, which involved $11,768.18 in bad checks to a local bank. In July 2009, Marliem was served with a foreclosure notice on a Maplewood town home, owned by his wife.
A low point came Jan. 25, 2010, when Marliem pleaded guilty to the theft by swindle charge and was convicted. Because the conviction was a gross misdemeanor, his immigration status as a permanent resident with a green card wasn’t affected.
Two years later, Marliem and his wife bought a $2 million mansion on Lake Minnetonka, a search of public records found. Marliem has not responded to requests for comment at the Minneapolis office of Marliem Consulting company, which focuses on bio-metric identification systems for the Asian market.
In 2013, Marliem added philanthropist to his resume.
As was widely reported in Twin Cities media, Marliem gave $66,000 to the Como Park Zoo to underwrite efforts to save endangered orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia.
City Pages noted Marliem’s “interesting donation history,” recalling the controversy over his contributions to the Obama inauguration. “I am honored to be in a position to contribute to the preservation of orangutans,” Marliem said on his personal website.
Contact Tom Steward at [email protected]