Imaad Zuberi raised funds for Democrats and Republicans alike and had access to the upper echelons of both parties, including private meetings with then-Vice President Joe Biden and a special invitation to Donald Trump’s inauguration.
He lived the high life, staying in the best hotels and inviting legislators and diplomats to dinner at four-star restaurants. Ambassadors from other countries called him when they wanted to meet with a legislator.
He was adept at handling contacts and loved to throw in the names of important people he knew. His Facebook account is full of photos of him with big names: dining with Hillary Clinton and Robert De Niro and rubbing shoulders with then-Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus in front of Trump’s residence in Mar-A-Lago. Zuberi raised large sums for Clinton in the 2016 election before crossing over and being a major donor for Trump’s inauguration ceremony.RELATED
Federal prosecutors say Zuberi’s lavish life was the product of lies and the lucrative business of financing political campaigns, to profit after the influence he gained.
“People come to Washington to network,” Zuberi said in a 2015 email obtained by the Associated Press, related to efforts for the Guinean president to meet with a leading lawmaker. “We receive requests for contacts from the scum of the world … warlords, kings, queens, presidents for life, military dictators, tribal chiefs …”.
Prosecutors describe Zuberi as a “mercenary” agent who made deals with anyone he thought could benefit him, making illegal donations of money from others in his name. He told his clients that “that’s the way things work in the United States.”
Zuberi’s story reflects how loosely regulated political campaign finance and foreign lobbying laws are. It also raises an uncomfortable question: How does a cynical fundraiser ingratiate himself with so many high-ranking government officials?
“The Zuberi case proves, with palpable evidence, foreign, corrupt and widespread interference with our elections and with decision-making,” said prosecutor Daniel J. O’Brien.
Zuberi pleaded guilty last year to violating campaign finance laws, acting as a foreign agent without registering as required by law, and tax evasion. He also admitted to obstructing a federal investigation into whether any foreigners had made illegal contributions to Trump’s inauguration. You could be sentenced to several years in prison.
The Justice Department investigation, however, does not shed light on several questions about Zuberi’s relationships and who benefited from his dealings. Aside from a collaborator who pleaded guilty to a minor tax charge, no one working for him has been charged with anything.
And the government has not said publicly which politicians received donations from Zuberi and paid for them with favors.
An AP investigation, however, identified associates, collaborators, and targets of Zuberi’s efforts, from emails, legal documents, campaign finance reports and interviews with more than three dozen people, including diplomats, officials. police officers, lobbyists and former members of Congress.
Documents and interviews indicate that Zuberi used an illegal donation system in which he paid for the donations of others with his credit cards and used false information, including from a dead person. The Justice Department said it funneled nearly $ 1 million in illegal donations to political campaigns.
His donations gave Zubiri access to diplomats, generals and other important figures, especially legislators involved in foreign policy issues. Prosecutors say Zuberi worked for years as a foreign agent without registering as such and represented at least half a dozen countries and individuals, including a Ukrainian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prosecutors say Zuberi worked to prevent the passage of a lower house resolution opposed by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, for Congress to pressure Bahrain on behalf of a businessman from that nation, and for the United States to invite Libyan officials seeking to recover frozen funds.
Zuberi also used his extensive network of contacts with public officials to pass information to foreign officials. He maintained close contacts with a CIA agent and boasted of his contacts with the intelligence services.
Prosecutors asked Judge Virginia Phillips to sentence Zuberi to at least 10 years in jail, a fine of $ 10 million, and to pay $ 16 million to the Internal Revenue Service.
Zuberi admits to making illegal donations on behalf of others, but claims the sums involved are lower than what prosecutors say.
He maintains that he “helped facilitate” donations from foreign sources but that the federal laws on the matter are not clear and that he received “contradictory information from various campaigns” on this issue. He also acknowledges that he lobbied on behalf of Sri Lanka without registering as a foreign agent, but that the work he did for other countries and officials did not require registration.
“The government wants to set an example with Mr. Zuberi that goes far beyond what his actions would justify,” say his lawyers.