‘Mercenary’ donor gets 12 years in campaign finance scheme

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Imaad Zuberi, Thomas O'Brien

FILE – In this Friday, Nov. 22, 2019 file photo, Imaad Zuberi, left, leaves a federal courthouse with his attorney Thomas O’Brien, second from left, in Los Angeles. On Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, Zuberi, a once high-flying political fundraiser who prosecutors say gave illegal campaign contributions to Joe Biden, Lindsey Graham and a host of other U.S. politicians while secretly working for foreign governments is set to be sentenced. (AP Photo/Brian Melley)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A once high-flying political fundraiser who prosecutors said gave illegal campaign contributions to Joe Biden, Lindsey Graham and a host of other U.S. politicians was sentenced Thursday to 12 years behind bars.

Imaad Zuberi, who was accused of ingratiating himself with politicos in both major parties and peddling the resulting influence to foreign governments, pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion, campaign finance violations and failing to register as a foreign agent.

He also was ordered to pay nearly $16 million in restitution and a nearly $2 million fine. Federal prosecutors described Zuberi, who reports to prison May 25, as a “mercenary” political donor who gave to anyone he thought could help him. Pay to play, he explained to clients, was just “how America work(s).”

Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips for a stiff sentence, calling the scope of Zuberi’s scheme unprecedented. The Los Angeles businessman’s crimes included unregistered lobbying for governments with spotty human rights records like Sri Lanka and Turkey as well as a Ukrainian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, prosecutors said.

Phillips noted the sophistication of Zuberi’s straw donor scheme and also spoke of the role such campaign finance investigations play in preserving the integrity of American elections.

The sentence comes after former President Donald Trump recently pardoned others who had been convicted or pleaded guilty to similar foreign-influence-related crimes, including his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Elliott Broidy, a major Trump fundraiser.

Zuberi’s hefty sentence “sent a loud message that we have to stop such conduct to restore the public faith in our institutions,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel J. O’Brien told The Associated Press.

“This case shows that foreign influence extends well beyond what has been frequently discussed in public discourse,” he added.

Zuberi, 50, maintained that his wrongdoing had been limited and asked to be credited for years of cooperation with federal and local law enforcement. His attorneys noted he already has paid more than $10 million in restitution.

“I’m deeply sorry and, of course, humiliated,” Zuberi told the judge. “I have no excuse for what I’ve done.”

Some of Zuberi’s cooperation remains under seal. Phillips, citing national security interests, closed the courtroom for part of Thursday’s proceedings to discuss classified information Zuberi filed in an effort to reduce his sentence. Zuberi’s attorneys asked Phillips to credit him for a list of law enforcement leads and intelligence he provided to the federal government, according to people familiar with the court filings.

Zuberi, a Pakistani-American who has extensive business dealings overseas, was in frequent contact with a CIA officer over the years and bragged to associates of his ties to the intelligence community, theAP reported last year.

The sentencing came just days after hundreds of pages of previously sealed court filings in the case were made public at the behest of the AP and other media organizations.

The trove of court documents offered new details about how prosecutors unraveled Zuberi’s scheme and also include photographs of him rubbing shoulders with then-Vice President Biden and other prominent officeholders.

Zuberi had been planning to assist federal authorities in a corruption investigation of an unnamed mayor in California, his attorneys wrote in a newly unsealed memo. He was even “preparing at an FBI office for a recorded conversation” when that effort was called off after news broke that federal prosecutors in New York were investigating the $900,000 contribution Zuberi made to Trump’s inaugural committee, the records say. Zuberi has admitted obstructing that federal investigation.

Portions of the newly unsealed documents were redacted, in part, because of ongoing criminal investigations. Prosecutors revealed last year that there is an investigation into Zuberi’s ties to Qatar. Zuberi secretly lobbied the Trump White House and Congress on behalf of the small gas-rich monarchy, which has paid him $9.8 million, prosecutors have alleged in court papers.

The documents also demonstrate how Zuberi built a widespread network of contacts, thanks in part to his prodigious political giving. That included six-figure donations to the Obama-Biden ticket in 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

No one who accepted tainted money from Zuberi has been accused of wrongdoing, and Biden, through a spokesman, has said he had no knowledge of Zuberi’s illegal acts when they met, mostly at donor roundtables when Biden was vice president.

The new records show that Zuberi donated to or hired several Washington advocacy groups, lobbying shops and public relations firms. He also had well-connected people on his payroll for various business projects, including former NATO supreme commander Gen. Wesley Clark.

Emails obtained by the AP show Zuberi sought Clark’s help for work related to a company owned by Dmitry Firtash, a Putin-friendly oligarch fighting extradition to the United States on federal bribery and racketeering charges. Prosecutors say Zuberi made $1 million doing unregistered lobbying work for Firtash. Zuberi has said the money was for legitimate business transactions.

Clark did not respond to requests for comment.

The AP previously reported that Zuberi used a straw donor scheme in which he paid for others’ donations with his credit cards and used cutouts that included a dead person and names of people prosecutors say he made up. The AP’s investigation found several instances where Zuberi-linked donations to members of Congress occurred within a few weeks or even days of him receiving something he sought in return.

For example, Zuberi gave $5,200 to U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas around the time his office sent an official letter in late 2013 to the National Archives expressing support for a Zuberi associate seeking to do business there, according to emails obtained by the AP.

“This is why you are getting the letter,” Zuberi wrote to his associate. “Just want to make sure you realize it.”

Cardenas, a California Democrat, declined to comment.

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Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia, and Mustian from New York.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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