Major Donor To Trump Pleads Guilty In Campaign-Finance Case
Imaad Zuberi, who gave nearly $1 million to Trump inaugural, funneled foreign money to U.S. politicians in both parties. Major Donor To Trump Pleads Guilty In Campaign-Finance Case
A major donor to both Donald Trump made millions of dollars of illegal campaign contributions, some from foreign sources, to help cultivate influential U.S. politicians, according to charging documents filed Tuesday by federal prosecutors in California.
California businessman Imaad Zuberi, 49 years old, capitalized on his access to U.S. politicians to drum up business from foreign governments and foreign individuals, whom he later defrauded as part of a scheme to enrich himself, prosecutors say.
Mr. Zuberi will plead guilty to making illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and falsifying lobbying records to conceal his work for foreign governments, according to charging documents filed in federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison, though first-time offenders rarely receive the maximum sentence.
“Mr. Zuberi’s multifaceted scheme allowed him to line his pockets by concealing the fact that he was representing foreign clients, obtaining access for clients by making a long series of illegal contributions, and skimming money paid by his clients,” said Nick Hanna, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. “Mr. Zuberi circumvented laws designed to insulate U.S. policy and our election process from foreign intervention,” he said.
Mr. Zuberi’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“The Zuberi prosecution is one of the largest campaign-finance prosecutions in recent memory—a sprawling indictment touching most major areas of campaign finance law—from straw donors to corporate contributions to foreign nationals,” said David Mitrani, an election law attorney at the firm Sandler Reiff. “Prosecutors and the Department of Justice are watching these issues very closely.”
Mr. Zuberi was a major campaign contributor before he abruptly pivoted to support Mr. Trump after the 2016 presidential election, donating nearly $1 million to the president’s inaugural effort and ramping up his political giving to congressional Republicans.
Mr. Zuberi “told foreign nationals, representatives of foreign governments, and others that he could implement changes to United States foreign policy by wielding his influence in Washington, D.C,” prosecutors charged.
Mr. Zuberi raised funds from his foreign clients for his lobbying work, then donated some of those same funds to the political campaign of U.S. Mr. Trump. Between 2011 and 2017, he gave more than $3 million in political contributions while raising $1 million more as a volunteer fundraiser for various political campaigns.
With his status as a major donor came access to politicians— according to records reviewed by the Journal and people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Zuberi used that access to drum up more business and showcase his importance in Washington by distributing photographs of himself with political leaders taken at various political fundraisers, according to documents reviewed by the Journal and people familiar with the matter.
Spokespeople for Mr. Trump didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.
Prosecutors described Mr. Zuberi’s efforts as generating only marginal results, but added: “Some United States officials, however, were willing to adopt defendant Zuberi’s requested political positions or otherwise accommodate defendant Zuberi’s wishes.” The charging documents didn’t name the politicians in question.
Mr. Zuberi acknowledged misreporting his income from 2012 through 2015—failing to pay taxes totaling somewhere between $3.5 million and $9.5 million, prosecutors said. He was also pleading guilty to soliciting $250,000 in illegal campaign contributions—in some cases making illegal donations in the names of other individuals, while in other cases soliciting contributions from foreigners.
Mr. Zuberi was a substantial fundraiser at one point serving on the national finance committee for her 2016 presidential campaign. From 2011 through 2014, Mr. Zuberi gave more than $70,000 to Republicans.
After the 2016 election, he significantly ramped up his GOP donations, including making major contributions to the GOP House and Senate fundraising committees, the records show. He was first named in a wide-ranging document subpoena issued Feb. 4 to the Trump inaugural committee by a different set of federal prosecutors in New York City—an investigation that hasn’t yielded any public charges so far.
The Journal first reported that Mr. Zuberi was under investigation in California in April.
According to the complaint, Mr. Zuberi was engaged with a web of foreign nationals all over the globe. He helped organize a lobbying campaign on behalf of Sri Lanka in 2014—without properly registering as a foreign agent, prosecutors say. He received $6.5 million from the Sri Lanka government—pocketing the funds after paying $850,000 to a variety of U.S. lobbying and consulting firms. He told the consulting firms that Sri Lanka never wired the funds, the complaint says.
In another instance, Mr. Zuberi formed a company called U.S. Cares to deliver humanitarian aid to Bahrain, according to charging documents. Mr. Zuberi obtained nearly $7 million in funds from investors, but used 90% of those funds for his own benefit. In another instance, he became involved in lobbying members of Congress to put pressure on Bahrain to lift sanctions on an individual without registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Mr. Zuberi, who is an American citizen, positioned himself at the nexus of international business, U.S. politics and foreign policy in many of his dealings. His company, Avenue Ventures Group, describes itself as a “venture capital, private equity, investments and holding company.”
He became avidly pro-Trump. Six days after Mr. Trump’s victory, the Twitter comments started coming in. “Donald J Trump won in fair election. Now everyone needs to fall in line behind the President-Elect. Country First!” one said.
Mr. Zuberi turned his attention to developing relationships with Mr. Trump’s inner circle and quickly made inroads. In addition to his contribution to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee through a corporation he controlled, Mr. Zuberi also met with Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, about possible real-estate investments.
Mr. Zuberi planned to pay Mr. Cohen $100,000 for real estate consulting but the deal never came together, the Journal has previously reported.