Prosecutors: Political donor sought to silence witnesses
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A political fundraiser accused of funneling foreign money into U.S. elections offered six witnesses in his case more than $6 million to keep quiet, federal prosecutors said Friday.
Prosecutors also revealed new allegations that the donor, Imaad Zuberi, acted as an unregistered agent for the Turkish government and Libyan government officials, among other foreign countries.
The allegations came hours before Zuberi pleaded guilty Friday in Los Angeles to charges of tax evasion, campaign finance violations and failing to register as a foreign agent.
Zuberi has been under scrutiny by federal prosecutors in both California and New York over millions of dollars in political contributions, including big donations to the inaugural committees of both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
So far, he has been charged only in Los Angeles. Zuberi’s attorneys had requested a delay of Friday’s hearing, saying they had been blindsided by prosecutors in New York saying they intended to charge him with additional crimes.
In a court filing, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles accused Zuberi of stalling. The office told the judge that if Zuberi did not plead guilty as scheduled, his plea agreement would be voided and he would be hit with additional charges, including wire fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice related to $50,000 Zuberi is alleged to have paid a witness.
The filing said prosecutors would present evidence at sentencing that Zuberi had obstructed the investigation “by paying, or offering to pay, $6,150,000 to six witnesses in return for their false testimony or silence.”
The papers also said prosecutors would present evidence that Zuberi had acted as an unregistered agent for Sri Lanka and Turkey and Libyan government officials, as well as a Bahraini national, a Ukraine national and Pakistani nationals.
Zuberi’s attorney declined to comment on the allegations.
The allegation that Zuberi acted as an unregistered agent for Turkey comes about a month after investigators probing his activities questioned a prolific Democratic Party donor who has ties to the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to law enforcement records reviewed by The Associated Press.
The records show that prosecutors and FBI agents quizzed the donor, Murat Guzel, a Turkish-American businessman, about his dealings with Zuberi and several U.S. lawmakers and foreign officials. Guzel was granted immunity to speak with authorities, the records show.
As part of their investigation, authorities also examined a $50,000 check Zuberi gave to Guzel earlier this year, according to other records reviewed by the AP.
It was not clear from those records or Friday’s court filings whether Guzel was among the witnesses Zuberi is accused of trying to pay off.
Guzel declined to comment through his attorney. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan also declined to comment. The Democratic National Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
A self-described “commercial diplomat,” Guzel has been an outspoken supporter of Turkey while being active in politics as a member of the Democratic National Committee. He immigrated to the U.S. more than 30 years ago and owns organic fruit companies in Pennsylvania.
Guzel’s Facebook account, which featured pictures of him with several prominent Democratic lawmakers at fundraisers and other events, was deleted after he was contacted by The Associated Press.
U.S.-Turkish relations have been strained over Turkey’s military incursion into Syria in October to attack the Kurdish forces that fought with the U.S. against the Islamic State.
Turkey has aggressively lobbied in the U.S., particularly in its efforts to have an expatriate Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, extradited from Pennsylvania to face trial in connection with a failed coup. The cleric denies any involvement in the coup.
Guzel has actively advocated for policies backed by Erdogan. Last year he led a news conference outside Congress where he criticized U.S. support for Kurdish fighters. Guzel’s emails also appear in a 2016 Wikileaks dump of Erdogan son-in-law’s emails. In one email, Guzel boasted of getting a former congressman to write an op-ed praising Turkey as a key ally.
Guzel and Zuberi are also connected through federal campaign finance records and social media postings.
A 2015 donation made in Guzel’s name to the National Republican Congressional Committee for $33,400 listed the donor’s address as Zuberi’s address in Los Angeles.
Zuberi, 49, was a major donor to former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but became a generous supporter of President Donald Trump within hours of his 2016 election.
Federal prosecutors in New York scrutinized a $900,000 donation he made to Trump’s inaugural committee and singled him out in a subpoena to the inaugural committee seeking a wide array of records about the $107 million celebration. The inaugural committee has not been accused of wrongdoing.
In the Los Angeles case, Zuberi was accused of soliciting donations from foreign nationals and companies and then acting as a straw donor to make donations to several U.S. political campaigns. The charges in that case are unrelated to Trump’s inauguration.
Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia. Mustian reported from New York and Los Angeles. Associated Press Writer Suzan Fraser contributed reporting from Ankara, Turkey.