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.
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.
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