Former Ald. Dorothy Borchardt has no trouble remembering Locha Thao from his political days in Madison - especially since, she says, he once offered her a bribe.
It was 2002, and Thao was a new member of the city's Parks Commission. He immediately began lobbying his colleagues to name a new east-side park after Gen. Vang Pao, an aging Hmong man living in California who fought Vietnamese and Laotian communists in the 1960s and 1970s, in support of the United States.
Borchardt, who was then pushing for a pool at Warner Park, was invited by Thao for lunch at the state Capitol, where he worked as an aide to now-disgraced Sen. Gary George.
"He told me he could get me money for a pool if I would support him to name his park," recalls Borchardt, a fellow parks commissioner. "I said to him, 'You're way out of line. You can't do that.' And he said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry. In my country, when you want public officials to do something, you offer something in return.'"
Borchardt accepted Thao's explanation but wouldn't back the naming. After her colleagues reached the same conclusion, in part because of allegations that Vang Pao was involved in executions and drug trafficking, Thao resigned from the commission.
It would take five more years, but Thao's goal of honoring Vang Pao came to fruition this April, when the Madison school board voted to name a new elementary school after the general, after an outpouring of pleas by Hmong leaders. Around this time, Thao was using the general's name to raise money from Hmong communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California to buy machineguns, grenade launchers, explosives and ground-to-air missiles for insurgent fighters in Laos.
Earlier this month, Thao, Pao and eight others were indicted on federal charges, causing the Madison school board a huge embarrassment. One lingering question is whether the naming was part of a larger agenda to boost Pao's reputation and promote fund-raising for what one prosecutor called "a conspiracy to murder thousands and thousands of people."
On Monday, board members grudgingly voted 7-0 to remove the general's name from its new west-side school and start the naming process anew.
It was bitter to the end. Board member Johnny Winston Jr. said the controversy "truly polarized our community along racial lines." Lawrie Kobza denounced critics who accused the board (wrongly, she says) of not following its naming policy. A defiant Lucy Mathiak recalled a past failed effort to rename Hawthorne Elementary after Rosa Parks and quipped, "apparently Rosa wasn't good enough for us, either." Many in the crowd groaned.
News accounts have documented decades-long attempts by Vang Pao, 77, to assist the Hmong in Laos and fulfill his dream of returning to the country. The Sacramento Bee reported that Vang has sold promissory notes to thousands of Hmong offering jobs in Laos after the country is reclaimed, and the San Francisco Chronicle quoted a Hmong author saying Pao openly raised funds to support guerrilla activities.
According to the criminal complaint, Thao and a former California National Guard officer met repeatedly with an undercover agent to discuss the overthrow plot. In one meeting, Thao allegedly envisioned blowing up "seven or eight key government buildings at the same time...like Sept. 11."
Thao was also involved in raising funds for the cause, traveling to Minnesota and Wisconsin, where large populations of Hmong reside. And an affidavit from the undercover agent references secretly recorded phone calls between Thao and an unnamed person in the Midwest who advised Thao on how to evade undercover agents. The affidavit also says there is probable cause for George's arrest in the conspiracy.
Former Sen. George, now ending a four-year prison term for his role in a kickback scheme, has through his lawyer denied any involvement. In years past, he defended Vang Pao's reputation and once slipped in a $3 million budget appropriation for a Hmong cultural center. Thao was implicated but never charged in obtaining forged nomination signatures - including many Hmong names - in George's 2002 bid for governor.
This week, nearly 1,000 Hmong protested Pao's arrest outside the federal courthouse in Madison. Some defended the plot's intentions of freeing people from an oppressive regime; others dismissed it as little more than wishful thinking.
But local Hmong leaders have distanced themselves from Thao, saying he was never a key player in Madison and suggesting he was prone to grandiosity. One Capitol source remembers Thao pitching a farfetched political fund-raiser involving an air show and Hmong youth in paramilitary garb.
Thao came to Madison from the Twin Cities in 2001 and left under a legal cloud for California in 2004. Madison businessman Peng Her says Thao "gained notoriety" in the Hmong community after being hired by George, but "we recognized him as an outsider who was here a couple of years and then disappeared." Peng Her never met Thao personally.
Koua Vang, a lawyer and nonprofit leader, says the community has "mixed feelings" about Thao, whom he also never met. "Maybe some of these things [Vang Pao] didn't know about."
Peter Munoz, who in 2002 served as a liaison to the Parks Commission as an aide to then-Madison Mayor Sue Bauman, recalls a presentation Thao gave about an organization he founded to provide paramilitary training to Hmong boys, to keep them from drugs and gangs. The presentation "scared the hell out of me," Munoz says. Notably, the criminal complaint alleges that Pao wanted Hmong men to join the California National Guard to gain important military training for the Laos takeover.
Alfonso Zepeda Capistran, the former president of the Madison Parks Commission, suspects that Thao hoped the park naming would increase Vang Pao's prestige, which would in turn boost his fund-raising efforts.
"I know there was a resistance going on that the general has been leading for a long time, and that Hmong people have been contributing money for a long time," Zepeda Capistran says. "I just didn't know it was more than supporting the resistance."
Shwaw Vang, who served two terms on the Madison school board, says many Hmong are worried that outsiders will misinterpret their financial support to Vang Pao and other efforts to support the Hmong in Laos. But he deems Thao's goal of raising more than $9 million impossible to achieve.
"I think people are not surprised to find him in the middle of this whole thing," says Shwaw Vang. "I think what's more shocking to the Hmong community is how did Vang Pao come to believe in this guy?"