Fundraiser Secretly Lobbied U.S. Officials for Foreign Countries

A Los Angeles businessman who served as a top fundraiser to U.S. presidents and members ofCongress secretly lobbied for years to advance the interests of an array of foreign governments and people, including a Ukrainian oligarch fighting extradition for criminal prosecution in the U.S., according to prosecutors.

Imaad Shah Zuberi funneled millions of dollars in illegal foreign contributions into the campaign accounts of U.S. politicians and hid the source of the funds by making the donations in the name of third parties, prosecutors said in a court filing Tuesday. The clients included Saudis, Kuwaitis, a faction of the Libyan government, Sri Lanka and Turkey, as well as Dmitry Firtash, who paid Zuberi $1 million to burnish his image as he has fought U.S. efforts to prosecute him on foreign-bribery charges, according to the filing.

Zuberi’s prosecution comes as the Justice Department has intensified focus on secret foreign influence peddling amid growing concern that U.S. foreign policy has been swayed at times by hidden forces. It has come to a head in the aftermath of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the prosecution of Americans who were secretly working to advance foreign interests, such as Paul Manafort.

“Public opinion is already rife with suspicions that foreign influence has compromised our elections and confidence in our democratic institutions has weakened,” prosecutors said. The Zuberi case verifies “pervasive, corrupt foreign interference with our elections and policy-making processes,” they said.

Fund Raising

Zuberi raised funds for the campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the inaugural committee of President Donald Trump, and steered hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican and Democratic congressional campaign committees.

U.S. prosecutors in New York and Los Angeles charged Zuberi with tax evasion, secret foreign lobbying and obstruction of justice. He has pleaded guilty to some of the charges and the cases were consolidated in Los Angeles. The new allegations of influence peddling were raised in a court filing by prosecutors in Los Angeles, who asked a judge to impose a stiff penalty when Zuberi is sentenced May 18.

Zuberi’s work influenced U.S. foreign policy as it related to Sri Lanka, Turkey and Libya, and fooled a dozen members of Congress into pressuring Bahrain’s foreign minister, according to prosecutors. A foreign national paid Zuberi millions of dollars to put U.S. pressure on Bahrain, because the government had frozen his assets, according to prosecutors.

“Nearly the entirety of defendant’s business activities and profits involved trading on his ability to influence U.S. government officials by engaging in concerted lobbying efforts and making enormous campaign contributions that, unbeknownst to the recipients and the public, were funded by prohibited foreign sources,” prosecutors said in the filing.

Read more on the charges here

A lawyer for Zuberi, Thomas P. O’Brien, declined to comment.

In October, Zuberi agreed to plead guilty to making almost $1 million in illegal campaign contributions from 2012 to 2016. He was also charged in New York with obstruction, stemming from the investigation into the Trump inaugural committee, for backdating a check to a donor and deleting email evidence.

Zuberi’s firm contributed $900,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee, which celebrated his ascendance to the White House in January 2017. For that, Zuberi got a table at the president’s candlelit dinner, next to a table where Republican fundraiser Elliot Broidy and Vice President Mike Pence were seated.

The prosecutors’ sentencing memorandum makes little mention of that period of Zuberi’s life, saying only that an intermediary tried to get Zuberi to pay for a Turkish official’s tickets to the event. But Zuberi spurned the offer because the intermediary had previously failed to come through with business in Turkey.

Tuesday’s filing lays out allegations about Zuberi’s lobbying efforts in great detail:

  • Zuberi’s work for Firtash involved trying to convince U.S. lawmakers that the Ukrainian’s prosecution was politically motivated, and getting congressional support for a “Ukraine development fund” that would have created business opportunities for Firtash’s company after the collapse of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine, and the imposition of U.S. sanctions against Russia. He got meetings with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and two U.S. senators to whom he had previously steered $70,000 in contributions.
  • His Libya work occurred in 2015 and 2016, at a time when rival factions were competing for control of the country’s government in the aftermath of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi’s death and the civil war that followed. He sought help from members of Congress to lift a U.S. freeze on $200 billion of assets stashed in overseas bank accounts, on behalf of the so-called Tobruk faction. He undertook the work in exchange for a promise that a commission on the unfrozen funds would be steered into an offshore entity created by a Saudi national and a Libyan businessman, and paid to him and others. The effort was abandoned after the leader of the Tobruk faction was no longer in the government.
  • For Turkey, Zuberi lobbied members of Congress to drop support for a House resolution in 2015 calling on the country to respect human rights and freedom of expression, in the leadup to national elections. An unidentified senior Turkish official asked Zuberi to work against the measure, in exchange for free land in the country to pursue development projects. Zuberi worked contacts in Congress to oppose the measure, which never made it out of committee.

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