L.A. golf course probed for link to graft in Japan


LOS ANGELES -- A shadow looms behind the tranquillity o the Riviera Country Club, the historic golf course that sprawls across a verdant bluff overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades: The club's Japanese owners are suspected of laundering money tainted by corruption back home.

U.S. investigators say they are looking into connections between the owners -- who bought the Riviera for $108 million four years ago -- and Japan's most notorious political power broker, Shin Kanemaru, who stands accused of graft, tax evasion and financial links to Japanese organized crime.

Officials from two U.S. law enforcement agencies said they were in the early stages of a money-laundering probe involving the Riviera, apparently examining whether any of the funds for its purchase could be traced to Mr. Kanemaru.

The club's owners deny any wrongdoing, although they acknowledge their close ties to Mr. Kanemaru -- the de facto boss of bosses in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party until his arrest March 6 on tax evasion charges.

The Riviera, home each year to the L.A. Open golf tournament and scheduled host of the 1995 PGA championship, has been widely viewed as a model Japanese investment since Kaneo Watanabe and his son, Noboru, completed their purchase of the club in 1989.

Contacted by telephone at his Tokyo office, Noboru Watanabe, 47, said Japanese press reports of links between Mr. Kanemaru and Marukin Corp., the Watanabes' family-owned development company, were "distorted and unbalanced."

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