An interview with a clown with a murky past.
Jesse Dean Bogdonoff has been many things – proponent of orthopaedic magnetism, star financier, solar installation salesman, spiritual explorer, alleged fraudster, Buddhist devotee and saxophonist. But the peak of his fame came in 1999, when he was appointed to the Tongan royal court – as its jester.
Tonga is a distant and unfamiliar place. In December 2021, it was the site of the largest volcanic eruption in the word since at least 1883. But you’re fine if you haven’t noticed, because not many have. When Tonga has made the headlines, it has typically been for the eccentricities of its kings. In 1976, the Guinness Book of World Records named Taufaʻahau Tupou IV, who would appoint Jesse, the world’s heaviest monarch at a redoubtable 209 kg. His son, Prince Siaosi (who would later become the incumbent George Tupou V), made headlines for his aspirations as a film-maker, musicologist, and communications developer.
Tonga remains a monarchy – the only one in the region – and its kings retain power over the state purse. This is how Jesse and Tonga’s fates would intersect.
In 1982 Tupou IV made Tonga the first Pacific nation to sell passports. They were particularly popular in Hong Kong. The family of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos acquired them when they fled from revolution in 1986. The earnings generated went to the Tonga Trust Fund – a savings account at the Bank of America.
By 1994, Jesse was working at the bank’s San Francisco branch as an investment manager. He came across Tonga’s account – which held more than $20 million, all left uninvested. Jesse knew an opportunity when he saw one: markets were rising, and he stood to earn a substantial commission if he could manage Tonga’s money. But his colleagues thought it a foolish endeavour – Tonga was unreachable, 8,500 kilometres away.
Prince Siaosi would later make addressing Tonga’s communications a priority, setting up his own satellite and mobile phone company, Tonfön – the umlaut added because he liked the look. (Its offices were later torched in pro-democracy protests.) But the poor infrastructure of his father’s heyday meant that if Jesse was going to have any chance of convincing the Tongan court to entrust him with managing its money in the stock markets, he would have to do so in person.
That November Jesse flew to Tonga, and soon wooed the King. Over the next five years Jesse’s investments earned Tonga millions. Jesse then left Bank of America, setting himself up as an independent advisor.
But Jesse had a problem: ‘a non-compete clause with the bank. I sat down with a lawyer and he said “you could go work for the King in some other capacity, and then if they chose, they can do whatever they want with their money.”’
Jesse sought counsel from an ‘old college buddy’, Jim Warshauer, who had a remarkable impact on his life. For although Jesse’s tangles with the Tongans would later make him briefly (in)famous, it was through Warshauer that Jesse had already found his true calling.
In Jesse’s telling, it was while he was a music student at San Francisco State University in 1980 that one day, Warshauer turned to him and asked if he wanted to come to a Buddhist meeting.
‘Jimmy,’ he recalls saying ‘Buddhish-shmuddish, we’re both Jewish! What are you talking about?’. But Warshauer mentioned that it was a good way to meet girls. And as a ‘25-year-old hormone-pumping musician, as horny as can be,’ Jesse agreed to attend.
Jesse’s initial experience was not transformative. It was not just any Buddhist movement that Warshauer was introducing him to, but an offshoot ‘new religion’ known as Soka Gakkai. Its practitioners’ rapid chanting of the Lotus sutra – nam-myoho-renge-kyo – freaked Jesse out. ‘They were chanting like bees, to a scroll in a box, there was fruit in the altar and a photo of president Ikeda on the wall’. The real turn-off came when ‘At the end, four guys got up to sing a song and they started going a-a-o, a-a-0– and to me it looked like they were going “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!”’.
In 1984, while practicing yoga, Jesse had what he labelled a ‘Kundalini experience, a loss of self and merging with cosmos’ that lasted two weeks. But his spiritual path was shaken the following year when he was temporarily disabled by a racquetball injury.
While recuperating Jesse received an unexpected guest: Warshauer. He suggested that they chant nam-myoho-renge-kyo. ‘So we sat there chanting really slow. And in about five minutes of chanting all the stress and disorientation I had been suffering for the last six months just disappeared’.
Three days later, Jesse returned to SGI meetings. He hasn’t stopped since.
Warshauer’s guidance had proven pivotal to Jesse’s life before, and so it transpired again, as it was Warshauer who sought counsel with the King, and suggested a workaround: to appoint Jesse, officially, as the court’s jester.
His appointment, however, came at an inauspicious time for both Jesse and the markets. Doped up on advice from Robert Kiyosaki, an investment guru who would later co-author We Want You to be Rich with the 45th President of the United States, Jesse was particularly panicked by Y2K, and the havoc it could wreak on global finance.
Jesse took Tonga’s money out of the market and into a series of what he thought were ‘viatical settlement contracts’. These investments consist of terminally ill patients selling the death benefit of a life insurance policy. They receive the cash while they are still alive to spend it. If they outlive the policy, the investor loses. If not, the investor receives the pay-out. They are anonymised to mitigate against the gravest risk from the mismatch of the seller and investor’s interests. As Jesse put it with his trademark bluntness, ‘If you are the buyer of this contract and you find out who the actual insured is, there would be an incentive for you to go out and kill them.’
Jesse says that he learned about the investments from his brother, Ladd, who had, coincidentally, discovered them through a meeting of his own New Age worship group. He argues that he – and by extension, Tonga – were the victims of a fraud, and that he is not a fraudster, adding, by means of emphasis, ‘by the way, my brother lost all his money’.
Documents from the US Securities and Exchange Commission, however, paint a murkier picture.
According to the SEC, Jesse invested $20 million in purported viatical settlements offered by Millennium Asset Management Services – though it was founded just three months prior. Millennium was supposed to return $26 million to Tonga in June 2001. It did not – and swiftly filed for bankruptcy instead. In Jesse’s words, ‘the shit hit the fan and it became a disaster’. Jesse directed another $4 million to a company purportedly developing an alternative energy device called a flywheel. It never materialised, nor did another $500,000 he invested in an internet film distribution company. Only $2 million was ever recovered.
In 2004, Jesse settled with the SEC, receiving a lifetime ban from serving as an investment advisor. He also reached an out-of-court-settlement with Tonga, agreeing to repay the Kingdom roughly $1 million. The settlements did not require him to formally admit wrongdoing.
Jesse does not like to dwell on the legacy of the financial fiasco. He says he turned down a $500,000 offer for a Netflix series, explaining ‘the cost is too great to other people that wouldn’t have the option to say, “please don’t do this, we don’t want to have to be beat up again by being victimised by your stupidity”’.
Though he has never returned, Jesse had already intended to leave a permanent mark on Tonga.
In July 2001 – before the collapse of Jesse’s investments was disclosed – a five-metre-high obelisk and sundial ‘peace monument’ that Jesse designed was installed outside the Tongan royal palace. It was a gift to Tupou IV from Daisaku Ikeda, head of Soka Gakkai – the result of a meeting Jesse brokered between the pair.
Jesse does not know when, but the monument was later removed. For Jesse, this is the true tragedy in the Tongan farce.