Jimmy v. Jesse

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

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."

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.

The Ventura campaign never held a wrestling fundraiser. But on September 11, after digesting Olsen's reply, Koch filed suit. "I was angry. I was hurt," the promoter explains. "I don't care how busy Mr. Ventura was. There are telephones all around the state. He could have had the decency himself to call us. If he'd have been a gentleman about it, it would never have gotten to this point."

Indeed, as the paperwork wended its way through the legal system, Koch attempted to settle the matter--for no money. His first overture, proffered just after Ventura's November victory, suggested that WCF organize and sponsor a wrestling event to be held during inauguration week, with any profit to be split evenly between the company and the campaign. Olsen politely declined the "creative" proposal, noting in a letter that a wrestling theme would not fit with the other inaugural activities.

And so it was that Jimmy Koch had his day in court. On a cold December day in downtown Minneapolis, Koch and Liljedahl explained to referee Mark Gleason how Ventura's campaign had asked them to put together the wrestling fundraiser, only to back out at the last minute. Mark Levine was there, too, as a witness. (Conciliation court, better known as small-claims court, is designed to allow citizens to settle civil matters involving sums up to $7,500 without expensive costs or attorney fees. A referee listens to testimony, then makes a ruling.) The governor-elect wasn't present, but his attorney spent two hours presenting his own witness testimony to refute the plaintiff's claim.

A week later the referee ruled in Ventura's favor. That didn't satisfy Koch. Contending that it was impossible for him to get a fair hearing in the midst of the excitement surrounding Ventura's ascension to the state's highest elected office, and that the soon-to-be governor was himself a key witness, the promoter appealed the case to district court.

"They had a fair hearing. They presented witnesses. They presented testimony," Olsen responds. "The judge listened and chose not to believe it."

As the court file burgeoned, WCF made another settlement offer. This one stemmed from Olsen's written disparagement of WCF--the revelation that something about the firm's "reputation in the community" caused Ventura to sever their relationship. Koch would drop his suit if Ventura would detail the negative remarks he'd heard about the company and reveal who'd made them. (Koch believes the smear was rooted in a conflict between himself and a former business partner who later went to work on the Ventura campaign.)

Again Olsen declined the offer. "They're asking us to assist them to bring what we believe to be baseless claims against other parties," the attorney says. "It's a matter of principle," he adds. "We initially viewed this as an attempt to extort from the campaign, and we didn't want to give into those tactics." Olsen declines to specify exactly what the campaign learned about WCF's reputation. "I don't really want to get into that," he says. "It was determined it wouldn't be a good deal to participate in the show they were proposing."

Last month District Court Judge Patricia Kerr Karasov threw out Koch's appeal, ruling that it was illegal for him to file it on his own: As a corporation, WCF had to be represented by an attorney. Levine, who had not signed on officially as Koch's attorney until after Koch filed the appeal, intends to take the matter a step further, to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. His argument: The law states only that a lawyer must handle any appearances by a corporation once a case is in district court. Because the filing had originated in conciliation court, a lawyer wasn't yet necessary. "The first appearance [in district court] was responding to the motion to dismiss," Levine says. "You should be able to hire a lawyer after an appeal is filed in conciliation court."

Olsen believes the appellate court will toss out the case. "We're confident that the courts will again dismiss it," he says.

Koch, meanwhile, remains steadfast. "All I wanted was an apology," says the promoter. "I want my day in court with him. Will I get my opportunity to bring Ventura to the stand?"

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