Obama’s attorney general pick wants to throw the book at convicted Hillary Clinton bundler

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Loretta Lynch and Sant Singh Chatwal. (AP Photo/Getty Images)

The U.S. attorney nominated by President Barack Obama to be his next attorney general is asking a federal judge to impose a stiff prison term of up to four and a half years on a former Hillary Clinton fundraiser convicted of making more than $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

The request by Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, to reject leniency for wealthy hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal and have him sent to federal prison is the latest example of the tough stance Justice Department prosecutors are taking with those convicted of making so-called conduit contributions — campaign cash that is falsely reported as being made in the name of others.

But the court filing by Lynch’s office this week also comes at a time when she is facing a potentially tough grilling from Republican lawmakers on her nomination to succeed Attorney General Eric Holder. “It won’t hurt for Loretta Lynch to be sending a major Democratic fundraiser to prison right before her confirmation hearing for attorney general,” said Brett Kappel, a Washington campaign-finance lawyer who closely tracks federal election law enforcement.

Chatwal, 70, is an immigrant from India who is chairman of the $1.5 billion Hampshire Hotels & Resorts empire, which owns luxury hotels around the world. He has long been close to both Bill and Hillary Clinton; he raised more than $100,000 for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and, according to his lawyer’s own filings in his case, was a founder of the Clinton Global Initiative, a charitable arm of the former first couple’s foundation. He once accompanied Bill Clinton on a trip to India.  

In April, Chatwal pleaded guilty to violating federal election law by illegally raising funds for Hillary Clinton and two other federal candidates through the use of straw donors. He also pleaded guilty to witness tampering after he was caught on tape coaching one of those donors, who turned out to be a government informant, to lie to investigators.

Chelsea Clinton stands with businessman Sant Singh Chatwal, Jan. 3, 2006. (AP Photo)

Chatwal’s case has gotten some attention because of his blunt words — caught on tape by the wired informant — about the role of big money in politics, and why fundraisers such as himself give so much cash in the first place. “Without [money] nobody will ever talk to you,” Chatwal told the informant, according to court filings. “That’s the only way to buy them, get into the system.”

In a recent court filing, Chatwal’s lawyer, Jonathan Sack, said his client “comes before this court humbled — filled with remorse and shame for what he has done.” But Sack asked that the court show leniency for Chatwal and not send him to prison, citing a long history of humanitarian causes, including his work with Bill Clinton and relief efforts in India.

But Lynch’s prosecutors took a hard line, saying he should receive an enhanced prison sentence of between 46 and 57 months because of his efforts to obstruct justice. “The evidence in this case reveals a man who believes that either the rules do not apply to him or that they can be subverted in pursuit of his own ends," Lynch wrote in a court filing cosigned by Jack Smith, chief of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section.

There is no evidence in the case that Hillary Clinton or any of her campaign team were aware of Chatwal’s illegal contributions. But he is the latest in a series of fundraisers from her 2008 campaign — seven all told — who have been prosecuted for illegal campaign contributions, a record that has been attributed by campaign finance experts to the then senator’s heavy reliance on wealthy “bundlers” to raise cash for her run against Barack Obama.