Imaad Zuberi, a San Gabriel Valley businessman who was one of the country’s top fundraisers for both Democrats and Republicans, was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison for schemes to funnel foreign money into U.S. political campaigns and skim millions of dollars for himself.
The sentence sealed the downfall of a man whose donations bought him easy access to presidents, vice presidents, congressional leaders and top-tier candidates for public office.
Screening systems that Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and many others used to catch tainted donations failed for years to stop the flow of Zuberi’s illegal contributions. Zuberi used the name of his dead mother to make some donations, prosecutors say, while many others were secretly reimbursed by foreigners trying to disguise efforts to sway policymakers in Washington.
All the while, Zuberi maximized his personal gains by cheating his foreign clients, stiffing the lobbyists he hired and evading taxes.
“All of these are serious offenses,” U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips said before imposing the sentence at a rare in-person hearing in a Los Angeles courthouse all but emptied by the pandemic. She fined Zuberi $1.75 million and ordered him to pay the government $15.7 million in restitution for unpaid taxes, interest and penalties.
Recalling Zuberi’s comment to a foreign client that big payments to powerful politicians were “the way America works,” Phillips said his crimes warranted a tough punishment, especially at a time when many Americans believe government is rigged by the well-connected.
Zuberi pleaded guilty in June to obstruction of justice, admitting that he hid the true source of part of a $900,000 donation his investment firm made to Trump’s inaugural committee, then tried to impede the FBI’s investigation of the matter by paying off witnesses and destroying evidence.
In 2019, Zuberi pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. His sentence was for all four of his crimes.
Zuberi, 50, dressed in a gray suit, removed his blue surgical mask to address the judge Thursday from behind an acrylic plastic panel.
“Obviously, I have no one else to blame but myself for this conduct,” he told Phillips. “I’m deeply sorry, and of course I’m humiliated as I stand in front of you.”
Zuberi made more than $950,000 in unlawful donations to political committees of Obama, Clinton, McCain and many others, nearly all of it from undisclosed foreign donors, according to prosecutors. Federal law prohibits political contributions from foreign sources.
Zuberi was also reimbursed by undisclosed Americans for some of his donations, prosecutors say. Zuberi’s lawyers argued that the amount of illegal donations he made was far lower than what prosecutors alleged. The judge ultimately decided they totaled around $756,000.
Zuberi also admitted dodging millions of dollars in taxes. All told, he hid more than $19 million in income, according to the government.
That included lobbying and consulting fees from Sri Lanka when it was trying to repair its image in the U.S. after a bloody military crackdown on its minority Tamil population. Zuberi admitted that he concealed and lied about some of that work in disclosure reports he filed with the U.S. government.
Zuberi also worked for Turkish, Libyan, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Qatari and Ukrainian interests, according to prosecutors.
With many of the court filings in his case under seal, the full scope of Zuberi’s machinations remains unclear. But prosecutors alleged his covert foreign influence campaigns sometimes succeeded in corrupting U.S. policymaking.
“In the case of Qatar, U.S. policy was changed to align with Qatar’s interests,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel J. O’Brien wrote in a November court filing, adding a footnote that referred to a document under seal. The judge ejected the public and news media from the hearing Wednesday for more than an hour to discuss matters she described as “classified for national security interests.”
The Associated Press has reported that Zuberi exchanged encrypted messages with a CIA officer and often wrote in private emails about selling U.S. arms abroad.
In court papers, O’Brien called Zuberi “purely a mercenary, funneling money to whomever he believed would do his bidding.” In November 2016, Zuberi attended Clinton’s election night party in New York City. Within weeks of her defeat, he was co-chair of the Trump Presidential Inauguration Committee, O’Brien wrote.
From 2011 to 2017, Zuberi and his wife, Willa Rao, gave more than $3 million to campaigns and presidential inaugural committees. Zuberi also bundled over $1 million in donations from third parties. He promoted himself to potential clients by distributing photographs of himself with recipients of the money. Rao has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Court records recently unsealed in response to a request by the Associated Press include Zuberi emails with attached photos of himself with President Biden when he was vice president; Obama when he was president; Clinton during her 2016 run for president; former President Bill Clinton; former Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin when he was House speaker; and McCain, the late Republican senator from Arizona.
Prosecutors blacked out the identity of those who fronted Zuberi the money for the donations. They included donors in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. Zuberi admitted he sometimes stole some of the money that foreign donors paid him to make U.S. campaign contributions.
Steve Kerrigan, president and CEO of Obama’s 2013 inaugural committee, said that committee worked hard to ensure every donor met strict compliance rules. “It’s impossible to catch everything if someone is willing to lie and cheat,” he said.
A White House spokesman reissued a November statement from Biden’s transition, saying Zuberi’s emails “heavily misrepresent and embellish” his interactions with the president, which were mostly donor roundtables.
Spokesmen for Trump and Hillary Clinton did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2015, some of Clinton’s most senior advisors agonized over whether to let Zuberi and 26 others continue to raise money for her campaign. They were all registered to lobby U.S. officials on behalf of foreign governments, and the Clinton team weighed whether it risked bad publicity.
At the end of a hacked email chain released by WikiLeaks, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told colleagues: “I’m OK just taking the money and dealing with any attacks. Are you guys OK with that?”
Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign’s communications director, replied in a three-word email: “Take the money!!”
Five months later, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta was scheduled to meet with Zuberi for a half hour in Century City to thank him for raising $270,000. In a memo attached to an email, Stephanie Daily Smith, a regional fundraiser for the campaign, reminded Podesta that Zuberi had also raised $1.2 million for Obama.
She provided Podesta with Zuberi’s biography and a Foreign Policy article headlined: “Elite Fundraiser for Obama and Clinton Linked to Justice Department Probe.” It disclosed the $6.5 million in unlawful payments that Zuberi and his firm had received from Sri Lanka, in part to influence the U.S. government — the same payments that would help land him in prison.