Fundraiser Lobbied for Foreign Countries, U.S. Says

Christian Berthelsen and Caleb Melby

(Bloomberg) -- A top fundraiser for U.S. presidents and members of Congress secretly lobbied for years to advance the interests 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 on Tuesday.

The Los Angeles businessman’s 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, prosecutors said.

The U.S. made the allegations as part of a legal brief asking a judge in Los Angeles to impose a stiff penalty on Zuberi when he is sentenced in May, after pleading guilty in November to violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act, making illegal campaign contributions and tax evasion. Separately, prosecutors in New York have charged him with obstruction. Zuberi’s lawyer has said he plans to plead guilty in that case, which has been transfered to California.

Thomas P. O’Brien, a lawyer for Zuberi, declined to comment. The defense will have an opportunity to file its own legal brief before the sentencing.

Zuberi’s prosecution comes as the Justice Department has intensified its 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 wrote in the legal brief. The Zuberi case verifies “pervasive, corrupt foreign interference with our elections and policy-making processes.”

From Obama to Trump

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.

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, prosecutors said in the new filing. A foreign national paid Zuberi millions of dollars to put U.S. pressure on Bahrain because the government had frozen his assets, prosecutors said.

“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 wrote.

Read more on the charges here

In November, Zuberi admitted making almost $1 million in illegal campaign contributions from 2012 to 2016. Prosecutors in New York accused him of 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. For that, Zuberi got a table at the president’s candlelit dinner, slated to be near seats for Vice President Mike Pence and Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy.

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 on 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. Zuberi 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 lead-up 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.

(Corrects headline and second deck headline of March 17 story to include attribution; corrects 12th paragraph on Broidy seating arrangement; adds in fifth paragraph that Zuberi can file response to new allegations)

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