Trump Donor Pleads Guilty to Acting as Foreign Agent

Imaad Zuberi, left, leaves the federal courthouse with his attorney Thomas O’Brien, right, in Los Angeles, on Nov. 22, 2019. Zuberi pleaded guilty to funneling donations from foreigners to U.S. political campaigns. (AP Photo/Brian Melley)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A California venture capitalist who donated nearly $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee pleaded guilty in federal court on Friday to falsifying records to hide his work as a foreign agent for Turkey and Libyan government officials.

Imaad Zuberi, 49, contributed large sums of money to both Republicans and Democrats, including $600,000 to then-candidate Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, as well as to Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky. But federal prosecutors say that money came from foreign entities.

In 2014, Zuberi promised officials from Sri Lanka he would help the country’s reputation through lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., during the Obama administration but did not disclose his work in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He also did not report or pay taxes on $5.65 million he collected from the Sri Lankan government.

On Friday, he pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion, the FARA violation and violating the federal election campaign act before Chief U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips in Los Angeles. Prosecutors also said Zuberi obstructed the investigation “by paying, or offering to pay, $6,150,000 to six witnesses in return for their false testimony or silence.”

Zuberi sought to delay Friday’s plea hearing because he claimed that the Department of Justice informed him he could be facing similar charges in the Southern District of New York.

In a filing Thursday evening with the Central District of California, Zuberi’s attorneys claimed they had been negotiating for months with federal prosecutors in California. His attorneys, Evan Davis and Thomas O’Brien, wrote Zuberi has been in contact with New York prosecutors who informed him in 2018 that he was the subject of an investigation into his contributions to the Trump inaugural committee.

But they claim during negotiations in California, the New York prosecutors never mentioned a change of status in their investigation. Days before he agreed to a plea agreement, Zuberi checked with New York prosecutors.

“The SDNY USAO confirmed that there had been no change in his status, meaning he remained a subject and not a target,” his attorneys wrote in the filing seeking to delay Friday’s plea agreement so they could coordinate with the two districts.

Zuberi’s attorneys say the fact that New York prosecutors may charge him with an obstruction count has made the earlier plea agreement no longer true.

“Mr. Zuberi’s deal with the government is now up in the air,” his legal team writes. They claim the DOJ has pulled a “bait and switch” on their client.

Prosecutors said they would void the plea agreement and add extra charges if Zuberi did not plead guilty. Zuberi ultimately pleaded guilty Friday to the three counts per his agreement signed Oct. 6, 2019. Prosecutors say Zuberi’s scheme stretched from 2011 to 2017 and included payments from foreign clients.

The charging document details an instance in which Zuberi tried to convince the government of Bahrain to lift sanctions on a Bahraini national in connection with a large resort project and made it appear Avenue Ventures had made a large investment in the project.

He then lobbied members of Congress to pressure Bahrain to stop its interference in the project – all an effort to help the Bahraini national, who paid him for his work, according to the charging document.

Prosecutors also say Zuberi applied for a license with the Office of Foreign Affairs for a company called U.S. Cares, which he said would export humanitarian aid to Iran. He received nearly $7 million from investors, but used 90% of the money to purchase real estate and pay off his credit card debt, according to prosecutors.

His sentencing is set for Feb. 10. He faces a maximum of 15 years in federal prison. The federal charging documents do not list which candidates Zuberi donated money to, but federal donation records show numerous donations made to both Democratic and Republican candidates.

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