LOS ANGELES (AP) — As an elite political fundraiser, Imaad Zuberi 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.
He lived a lavish, jet-setting lifestyle, staying at fine hotels and hosting lawmakers and diplomats at four-star restaurants. Foreign ambassadors turned to Zuberi to get face time in Congress. A CIA officer called him the “best connected person I know,” marveling at the depth of his Rolodex.
He was a charming networker and an inveterate namedropper. His Facebook account was filled with pictures of him next to the powerful and famous: having dinner with Hillary Clinton and Robert De Niro and rubbing shoulders with Trump’s then-chief of staff Reince Priebus outside Mar-A-Lago. Zuberi raised huge amounts for Clinton in the 2016 election before becoming a top donor to the Trump Presidential Inauguration Committee.
But federal prosecutors say Zuberi’s life was built on a series of lies and the lucrative enterprise of funding American political campaigns and profiting from the resulting influence.
“Everyone wants to come to Washington to meet people,” Zuberi said in a 2015 email obtained by The Associated Press, seeking a meet-and-greet between the president of Guinea and a powerful congressman. “We get request(s) for meeting(s) from all scumbag of the world, warlords, kings, queens, presidents for life, military dictators, clan chiefs, tribal chiefs and etc.”
Prosecutors describe Zuberi as a “mercenary” political donor who gave to anyone — often using illegal straw donor cutouts — he thought could help him. Pay to play, he explained to clients, was just “how America work(s).”
Zuberi’s story underscores how loosely regulated campaign finance and foreign lobbying laws are and raises an embarrassing question: How does such a cynical fraudster find favor with so many officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government?
“The Zuberi case explicitly verifies, through evidentiary proof, pervasive, corrupt foreign interference with our elections and policy-making processes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel J. O’Brien said in a sentencing memo.
Zuberi pleaded guilty last year to campaign finance violations, failing to register as a foreign agent and tax evasion. He also admitted obstructing a New York-based federal investigation into whether foreign nationals unlawfully contributed to Trump’s inaugural committee. He faces several years in prison and is set to be sentenced early next year.
But the U.S. Justice Department’s probe has left many unanswered questions about Zuberi’s foreign entanglements and who benefited from his actions. Aside from a minor associate who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor tax charge, no one who assisted Zuberi has been charged.
And the government has not publicly named the politicians who benefited from Zuberi’s donations and did favors for him.
But an AP investigation identified associates, enablers and targets of Zuberi’s influence efforts, drawing on private emails, court documents, campaign finance reports, and interviews with more than…
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