5 takeaways: Top donor sold access for foreign cash

Alan Suderman and Jim Mustian
Associated Press

Los Angeles – Imaad Zuberi once had the ear of top Democrats and Republicans alike – a reach that included private meetings with then-Vice President Joe Biden and VIP access at Donald Trump’s inauguration. But the one-time elite political fundraiser Zuberi has pleaded guilty to campaign finance and foreign lobbying violations and now faces several years in prison.

The Associated Press investigated Zuberi’s rise and fall in politics using court records, private emails and interviews with dozens of Zuberi associates.

In this Nov. 22, 2019 file photo, Imaad Zuberi, left, leaves the federal courthouse in Los Angeles with his attorney Thomas O'Brien after pleading guilty to funneling donations from foreigners to U.S. political campaigns.

Key takeaways from the AP’s investigation:

– Zuberi used an unsophisticated 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. At the same time, prosecutors say Zuberi worked for years as an unregistered foreign agent for at least a half dozen countries and officials, including Turkey and a Ukrainian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

– 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. His donations also gave Zuberi first-name access to members of Congress who controlled foreign policy. He was exceptionally close with outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, who gave Zuberi early heads-ups on legislation he intended to file and shared other details that could be useful to him, the emails show.

– There is an ongoing investigation into Zuberi’s ties to Qatar, a probe which has not been previously revealed. Prosecutors said in recent sentencing memos that Zuberi secretly lobbied the White House and Congress on behalf of the small gas-rich monarchy that has paid him $9.8 million.

– The AP’s investigation found that Zuberi regularly exchanged encrypted messages with a West Coast-based CIA officer. Zuberi has secretly petitioned a judge to credit him for law enforcement leads and intelligence he says he’s provided to the federal government, according to people familiar with the sealed court records.

– Zuberi used his extensive ties to U.S. elected officials to pass on potentially useful information to foreign officials, including information related to Biden. After having coffee with the then-vice president at a Beverly Hills hotel in 2014, Zuberi told the Saudi ambassador that Biden had made derogatory comments about the country, according to private emails. A Biden spokesperson said Zuberi’s emails misrepresent and embellish the interactions he had with the sitting vice president.