When President Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, a Saudi tycoon and his business associate sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to the U.S. to help pay for the inaugural celebration and get a picture with the president, according to court documents and an analysis of campaign finance records by The Associated Press.
U.S. election law prohibits foreign nationals from making those sorts of political contributions. But the donations Sheikh Mohammed Al Rahbani tried to send to Obama's inaugural committee were funneled through a seasoned straw donor, the records and the AP analysis show.
That intermediary, Imaad Zuberi, agreed this month to plead guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to several American political candidates on behalf of foreign nationals. He is also set to plead guilty to concealing his work as a foreign agent as he lobbied high-level U.S. government officials.
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The prosecution by the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles is the latest in a string of cases that highlight the prevalence of banned foreign money in American politics and the often lax approach campaigns take in vetting contributions.
Zuberi, a jet-setting fundraiser and venture capitalist, has raised millions of dollars for Democrats and Republicans alike over the years. Prosecutors say he has worked on behalf of several foreigners, not just Rahbani.
He served as a top fundraiser for both Obama and Hillary Clinton during their presidential runs, including stints on both of their campaign finance committees, before switching his support to President Donald Trump immediately after his 2016 victory, pumping nearly $1 million into the Republican's inaugural committee.
Federal Election Commission records show hundreds of donations from Zuberi and his family to Republican and Democratic national committees, the presidential campaigns of Trump and Clinton, and dozens of congressional candidates across the political spectrum. Zuberi-linked donations often went to lawmakers who are influential or outspoken on foreign policy issues, like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Only Zuberi has been charged in the case, and prosecutors have not alleged that any campaign that received money from him was aware that at least some of his donations were financed by foreigners.
Zuberi's case raises questions about the degree to which political committees vet donors. One campaign, not identified by name, accepted donations made in the name of one of Zuberi's dead relatives, prosecutors said. Another political committee took donations from a person Zuberi invented.
Some donations reported by political campaigns were made in Rahbani's and others' names but were paid for with credit cards belonging to Zuberi or his wife, prosecutors said.
Requests for comment were sent to representatives for Graham, Clinton and Engel.
Steve Kerrigan, CEO of Obama's 2013 inauguration committee, said it had a very thorough vetting process that included requiring donors to certify that their contributions complied with the law. He declined to comment further on the specifics of Zuberi's donations.
As a middleman, Zuberi was deeply flawed.
Zuberi, 49, admitted in a plea agreement that only $97,500 of the $850,000 that he was supposed to deliver to the Obama inaugural committee on Rahbani's behalf actually made it into the committee's hands. The rest, he skimmed for himself.
Rahbani declined to comment through an assistant. Zuberi's attorneys and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles all declined to comment.
The case shares similarities with others recently filed against people accused of channeling banned foreign donations to U.S. candidates.
Two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal charges they used foreign money to make unlawful campaign contributions to several U.S. candidates and committees.
Prosecutors said the donations orchestrated by Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman included a $325,000 contribution to a group supporting Trump's reelection, made at a time when the pair were lobbying U.S. politicians to oust the country's ambassador to Ukraine.
In April, a Washington political consultant was sentenced to three years of probation after admitting he made a $50,000 straw donation on behalf of a wealthy Ukrainian client who wanted tickets to Trump's inauguration. Like Zuberi, W. Samuel Patten also was charged with to failing to register as a foreign lobbyist.
The FEC earlier this year fined a super PAC that supported Jeb Bush's failed 2016 Republican presidential bid for accepting $1.3 million in illegal donations from Chinese nationals.
Zuberi has also been under scrutiny by federal prosecutors in New York after he donated $900,000 to Trump's inaugural committee and $100,000 to a Republican campaign committee. Those donations occurred around the time Zuberi accompanied Qatar's foreign minister to a meeting at Trump Tower.
Trump's inaugural committee has not been accused of wrongdoing in connection with the money it received from Zuberi. It says it has cooperated with the federal inquiry.
Rahbani is named in the charging documents in Zuberi's case only as "Person A," but the AP was able to identify him through biographical details in the court filing and by matching the timing and amounts of donations mentioned in the court filing to publicly available campaign finance records.
For instance, prosecutors in court filings said "Person A" and his wife made four donations of $2,700 to "Campaign J" on Sept. 28, 2016, while one of Rahbani's business associates donated $400 to the same campaign on that date.
FEC records indicate that Rahbani, his wife, Kate Rahbani, and one of Rahbani's business associates made donations in those amounts on that date to Graham's Senate campaign. Those donations, unlike others in the case, were listed in the FEC records with the Rahbanis' names and address in London. Graham's campaign returned some of those donations in 2017, and when doing so listed them as going to Zuberi's address, FEC records show.
Those are just a few of several donations mentioned by prosecutors that the AP was able to match with public campaign records that listed Rahbani and people associated as the donors.
Prosecutors also described Person A as having dual citizenship in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, a residence in Switzerland and an American wife. In media profiles, Rahbani has talked about owning homes in London and Switzerland. His wife is an American.
The criminal case against Zuberi doesn't explain why Rahbani would have wanted to contribute to American political campaigns.
His company SAFID — a manufacturer of air conditioning-related products — is active throughout the Middle East and says on its website that it has worked on projects financed by the Saudi government.
Rahbani, in a few past interviews, has talked about his support of Obama. He posted pictures on his website of himself and his wife standing with Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and their spouses at a 2013 inaugural event. The website was taken down shortly after Zuberi's plea was made public.
Prosecutors said $100,000 from Rahbani's company meant for the inaugural committee was earmarked for "photos."
It isn't unusual for political fundraisers to offer photo sessions with candidates in exchange for donations and such practices are legal — although the ban on donations from foreign nationals would apply.
Zuberi, however, tried to get Rahbani and one of his business associates to donate even more money by falsely claiming they had taken too many people to a photo session with Obama and Biden and owed more money as a result, prosecutors said.
"I'm deeply concerned about foreigners trying to intervene in our elections, and I don't think we're doing enough to try to stop it," FEC chairwoman Ellen Weintraub told the AP. "They don't get a say in who we elect — or at least they're not supposed to."
Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia. Mustian reported from New York and Washington.