On the day he disappeared, Norman Hsu, the disgraced fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, sent letters to friends that recipients viewed as a suicide note, people familiar with the letter have said.
In his letter, Hsu apologized for any embarrassment he had caused recipients of his largesse. In the last four years, he has generated donations of more than $1 million for Democratic politicians across the country.
Hsu's undoing began two weeks ago with articles raising questions about his fundraising activities in the Wall Street Journal and about a criminal case in his past in The Times. In his letter, said a person familiar with its contents who asked to remain anonymous, Hsu contended that those articles were planted "by a politician who pledged 'hope and change' " -- an apparent reference to Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton's main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"This is a sad and baseless allegation," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said. "We had no knowledge of his past criminal behavior, fugitive status or a potential straw-donor scheme until reading it in the newspaper."
Hsu's troubles date to 1992 when he disappeared rather than face up to three years in state prison on the grand theft conviction involving what prosecutors termed a Ponzi scheme. Despite the warrant for his arrest, he emerged a decade later as a wealthy bicoastal businessman in the apparel trade and benefactor to Democratic causes and candidates.
After The Times reported that he was a fugitive, Hsu turned himself in last month and arrived in Oakland on Sept. 5 in time for a second court hearing, but again failed to appear. San Mateo County Judge Robert D. Foiles issued a warrant for his arrest, and the California attorney general's office requested FBI help locating him.
Before boarding an eastbound train later that day, Hsu apparently typed the one-page note and sent it by FedEx; it was received last Thursday.
Among the recipients was the Innocence Project, the New York-based organization co-founded by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld that seeks to prove the innocence of people in prison. Hsu was one of the organization's donors.
"We did receive a letter from him, the contents of which I don't want to divulge out of respect for his privacy," Eric Ferrero, the organization's communications director, told The Times on Friday.
Ferrero said the Innocence Project forwarded the letter to Hsu's defense attorneys in San Francisco and to the California attorney general's office. Hsu helped sponsor a dinner for the organization in April, Ferrero said, describing him as a "strong and committed supporter."
Gareth Lacy, spokesman for the California attorney general's office, confirmed that the office received the note but would not discuss its contents.
Hsu's spokesman declined to discuss the note. The businessman has retained a crisis communications firm, Sitrick & Co.
Hsu, 56, fell ill last Thursday while aboard the eastbound train and was taken to a hospital in Grand Junction, Colo. On Wednesday, he was moved from the hospital to a jail cell. Upon his return to California, he will face sentencing for the 15-year-old grand theft charge, along with FBI investigations into his more recent fundraising and financial activities. Questions have been raised about some of his bundled contributions, involving multiple donations from a large number of individuals.
Until recent weeks, Hsu was a darling of Democratic politicians, donating at least $600,000 himself during the last four years and raising far more than that from associates.
Among the candidates to whom he donated was Obama -- a total of $7,000 in 2004 and 2005. Obama recently gave that same amount to charity. Hsu's associates have given Obama at least $12,600 more.
The biggest recipient of his largesse was Clinton. Aides to the New York senator estimate that Hsu raised $850,000 for her presidential campaign. The Clinton campaign announced earlier this week it would return the $850,000 to 260 donors.
Times staff writers Tom Hamburger and Chuck Neubauer in Washington contributed to this report.