Jimmy v. Jesse

A local wrestling promoter says the governor reneged on a campaign promise

Jimmy Koch is not the sort of fellow given to subtle gestures. The burly 44-year-old barrels into his lawyer's office dressed in gym shorts and sneakers, digital pager perched on his hip. Doubtless he'd rather be behind the wheel of a racecar, as he is most weekends at small-time racetracks across the nation. But right now Koch, who also promotes live wrestling shows in small arenas around the Twin Cities, is recounting how he came to sue James Janos, a.k.a. Gov. Jesse Ventura, and the people who helped get him elected. "It's the principle," Koch barks, his hands waving wildly. "We had a verbal contract with them!" His broad, sunburned face turns a shade or two brighter.

The "verbal contract" that has Koch's dander up was an ostensible agreement for his company, World Championship Fighting Inc., to stage a show last September as a fundraiser for then-candidate Ventura's campaign. In a suit filed in Hennepin County Conciliation Court last September, Koch alleged that Ventura's people abruptly backed out of the show after Koch and his staff had expended time and money to line up wrestlers and sponsors. A judge ruled against Koch in December, but the promoter has appealed the ruling.

The debacle began innocently enough in August of last year, when WCF employee Eugene Liljedahl got a call from a Ventura campaign volunteer wanting to know what kind of wrestling show the company could put together as a fundraiser. Koch and Liljedahl were excited; though the wrestler-turned-populist was still more an amusing novelty than a viable candidate at the time, they figured such a show was bound to be a plum on the local wrestling scene. Two days after that initial phone call, the pair spoke with campaign directors--and Ventura himself--at the Minnesota State Fair. It was there, Liljedahl would later state in court papers, that Ventura told WCF to "go ahead and put the show together." Says Koch: "We wanted to do a good job for him. He's one of us--well, we thought he was."

Jimmy Koch: Racecar driver, wrestling promoter, litigant
Craig Lassig
Jimmy Koch: Racecar driver, wrestling promoter, litigant

The State Fair meeting took place on a Thursday. Koch says that because Ventura's people told him to have all the details nailed down by the beginning of the following week, he and Liljedahl spent the entire weekend working on it from 10:00 a.m. to midnight each day. They signed up a dozen wrestlers and set aside commercial time with the Twin Cities' major cable companies. They hammered out a plan for the show: six matches, plus a "battle royale"--a free-for-all finale with all the wrestlers in the ring at once. They got verbal commitments from local and national stars, including Mad Dog Vachon, Hawk (from the Road Warriors), the Crusher, and the Hater. "We did everything over the weekend. We were rockin'," Koch laments.

When Monday rolled around, though, something was clearly amiss. Wrestlers Koch had booked for the show were calling to impart the local buzz: The Ventura campaign was talking to someone else about staging the show; WCF was out. Koch says that when he was finally able to reach a Ventura campaign volunteer, the woman explained that they had decided not to do the wrestling show. "She's kind of stumbling over her words," Koch recalls. "'If we do it, we'll do it ourselves.'" He says she also requested that he turn over all the work he'd done so far on the event.

After hearing of Koch's bad fortune, Mark Levine, a Minneapolis attorney and friend of Liljedahl, volunteered to write to Ventura on behalf of the WCF. In a letter dated September 4, he demanded $1,500 to cover Koch's expenses, and warned that a potential lawsuit would "serve as a notice to the people of Minnesota as to who the 'real' Jesse Ventura is. "I find it outrageous that one who purports to be a 'man of the people' engages in such conduct and induces average, hard-working people to expend time and money for what they believe to be a valid purpose," the letter continued. "If you want to be governor, you have an obligation to be up-front and forthright with men like my clients."

Perhaps not surprisingly, a lawyer for Ventura wrote back. In his reply, attorney David Bradley Olsen accused his counterpart of extortion and asserted that Ventura and his campaign had never officially met with WCF nor contracted with the firm for the fundraiser. Ventura had simply told Koch and Liljedahl to submit a proposal, he wrote, adding that "after hearing of World Championship Fighting's reputation in the community, Mr. Ventura decided that no further discussions were warranted and no meeting was ever held."

Olsen contends that the "meeting" between Koch and Liljedahl and Ventura and his people consisted of the WCF pair standing in line with hundreds of other well-wishers at the candidate's State Fair booth, the result being a moment's chat with the wannabe governor. Koch and Liljedahl were never given the green light to organize the show, he claims. Rather, they were simply instructed to submit a proposal that the campaign would review. "We saw this as an attempt to threaten litigation and drag the governor's name through the mud at a critical time in the campaign," the attorney says today.

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