Friday, September 17, 2004

Manoa pair to face
extortion charges

The allegations come from
the son of the founder of Kumon

A Manoa couple allegedly extorted $150,000 earlier this year from a son of the founder of the Kumon learning method in exchange for 2,000 "compromising" photos.

Debra Tajiri, who is licensed to operate Kumon math and reading centers in Manoa and Kailua, told Hiroshi Kumon he ruined her life after they had an affair in 1996 and began asking him for money over a 21-month period beginning in March 2002, according to a federal complaint filed against her earlier this year.

She and codefendant Sean Yonehiro, whom she hired to work in her centers as an assistant, face a preliminary hearing in U.S. District Court on Sept. 27 on a charge of sending international extortion communications. The offense is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Both were arrested Feb. 17 after Yonehiro met with an FBI agent posing as Kumon's attorney at Ala Moana Park earlier that day and took from him a bag containing what he believed to be $150,000, according to the federal complaint.

The couple were released after posting a $25,000 unsecured bond.

Kumon is the second son of the late Toru Kumon, a high school math teacher in Japan who devised a system 50 years ago to improve scores in math and languages.

At the time of the affair, Hiroshi Kumon was director of the international division of the Kumon Institute of Education in Japan, the parent company of Kumon North America, one of five regional headquarters worldwide responsible for operations in Canada, the United States and Mexico. He is no longer affiliated with Kumon.

According to the complaint, the Feb. 17 meeting was requested by an individual who went by the name "Max Lee" and who had been e-mailing Kumon while he was in Japan beginning in February 2003 threatening to release compromising photos of Kumon if he didn't pay for them. The complaint does not describe the photos but does say that Lee threatened to release the photos if Kumon also did not send more pornographic pictures of himself.

Tajiri's attorney, Howard Luke, and Yonehiro's federal public defender, Alexander Silvert, declined comment. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara said the case is ongoing and declined comment.

More than five years after their affair, Tajiri allegedly began e-mailing Kumon between March and October 2002 asking for $500,000 to remodel her house, the complaint said. In those e-mails, she allegedly told Kumon that "you have taken a lifestyle from me," and that she was considering filing a lawsuit.

She also accused him of infecting her with a venereal disease and said that he should pay for her medical treatment. Kumon allegedly paid her more than $350,000, court documents say.

But from December 2002 to January 2003, Tajiri allegedly continued asking Kumon for money, saying electricity at her home was shut off and that she could not pay contractors to finish work on her home.

In March 2003, Tajiri e-mailed Kumon again, saying she needed $550,000 to secure a building contract. When he didn't respond, she e-mailed him in June 2003 saying her life was "hell" and was over, and asking him why he had not sent money, the affidavit said.

Investigators learned that the e-mails sent by "Max Lee" came from an account belonging to Tajiri and from her Nipo Street home, the affidavit said.

One of three vehicles spotted at Tajiri's residence was a white Ford pickup truck that was later seen at the Hawaii State Library on Jan. 29 -- the first meeting Lee allegedly requested for Kumon's representative to bring the money. A man was seen walking around the library on that day before leaving in the white truck registered to Yonehiro, who lists a Nipo Street address as his residence, the federal affidavit said.

Matt Lupsha, vice president of education and communications for Kumon North America, which oversees Kumon centers in Canada, the United States and Mexico, said the organization regards the incident as a personal matter that did not affect its operations.

Tajiri "removed" Yonehiro as an employee after the complaint was filed and he has had nothing to do with the operations since, Lupsha said.

Tajiri, who has been a Kumon instructor since 1991, continues to operate the Manoa and Kailua centers.

"We're confident that the charges against Debbie will be dismissed and this is basically the effort of a third party, her employee, who received financial gain through his actions," Lupsha said.

Kumon, with 160,000 students enrolled in 1,600 U.S. centers, has made tremendous contributions to society and families worldwide, including in Hawaii, for the past 16 years, Lupsha said.

"I don't think this unfortunate incident can overshadow all of our contributions that we've made to the success of children there," he said.



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