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Globe-trotting political donor eyed in Trump inaugural probe

By The Associated Press
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NEW YORK (AP) — Federal prosecutors have cast a wide net in their investigation of President Donald Trump's inaugural committee, subpoenaing a smorgasbord of documents, including any addressing whether foreign nationals helped fund the $107 million celebration thrown to celebrate the Republican's ascent to the White House.

But in their records request Monday, federal prosecutors in New York also singled out a donor by name: Imaad Zuberi, a prolific political fundraiser with extensive ties to foreign officials and business associates.

Zuberi is a Los Angeles venture capitalist who raised millions of dollars for Democrats but shifted allegiance to Trump immediately after the 2016 election and gave $900,000 to the inaugural. The subpoena sought information on the committee's interactions with Zuberi.

Prosecutors haven't disclosed why they're interested in Zuberi, who gives his address in campaign donations as a small warehouse in South El Monte, California, yet has a corporate biography that says he's closed "$55 billion in transactions."

Zuberi said he is bewildered as to why his name was in the subpoena.

He declined to comment to The Associated Press when reached Thursday, but told The Washington Post and The New York Times earlier in the week that the money he gave to the inaugural committee was his own, and that he was not acting as a straw donor for foreign nationals, who are barred from giving to U.S. political campaigns.

Zuberi's spokesman, Steve Rabinowitz, said he also wasn't trying to buy favors from the Trump administration.

"He gets that he got involved at the presidential inaugural at a high level, but not nearly as high a level as so many others," Rabinowitz said. "He's not looking for anything from the U.S. government."

Zuberi has a long history of rubbing elbows with — and opening his wallet for — elected officials in the U.S., focusing on presidential campaigns and members of Congress involved in foreign affairs.

He made more than $583,000 in donations to the Hillary Victory Fund in 2015 and 2016 and contributed between $250,000 and $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He previously gave heavily to President Barack Obama's second inauguration committee, though much of that money was later refunded.

Despite serving as a bundler for Obama and for Hillary Clinton, including stints on both of their campaign finance committees, he quickly became one of Trump's benefactors following his upset victory.

After spending part of election night at Clinton's party in New York in 2016, he finished it across town at the hotel where Trump was celebrating, according to his social media posts.

Days after the election he gave $33,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. By Dec. 7, his Facebook timeline showed him attending a $5,000-a-plate fundraising breakfast with Trump in Manhattan.

On Dec. 12, he was recorded on video accompanying a group of Qatari dignitaries, including the country's foreign minister and the head of its sovereign wealth fund, as they were greeted in Trump Tower's lobby with Trump's then-lawyer, Michael Cohen. The group rode up in the elevators together.

Zuberi posted photographs of himself on Facebook the same day posing with Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Two weeks later, Zuberi's company, Avenue Ventures, gave $900,000 to Trump's inaugural committee and $100,000 to help pay off costs from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Zuberi later posted a photo of an invitation he received to Trump's inauguration. "From our friend Michael Cohen," he wrote.

Zuberi's spokesman, Rabinowitz, said there is nothing nefarious about the donations.

"He's long been a guy who likes to go to these events, meet people at them, network at them and be seen at them," said Rabinowitz. "He talked to the inaugural committee about what it would take to play at that level, and that entitled him, during the inaugural festivities, to go to what for him were the fun parties and to meet the interesting people."

As for the Trump Tower visit, Rabinowitz said Zuberi did not attend any meetings despite accompanying the Qatari delegation. He said Zuberi was cultivating a relationship with the Qataris because he hoped to work together on investments.

Zuberi got some face time with Trump several months later, in October 2017, when he attended a roundtable meeting in South Carolina with the president and Gov. Henry McMaster.

After the event, Zuberi, his wife and companies he controls gave McMaster's campaign $49,000.

Zuberi, who emigrated as a boy from Pakistan and is an American citizen, acknowledged to the Times that he donates to get the ear of important lawmakers.

"To open doors, I have to donate," he said. "It's just a fact of life."

Since being thrust into the spotlight, Zuberi has deleted years of photographs and social media posts, which chronicled his travels — including trips to London and Oman and meetings at Turkey's presidential palace. On Facebook, he would record meetings and dinners with Middle Eastern military officials and Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince.

His relationship with at least one foreign government has been called into question. Several years ago, Zuberi failed to disclose the extent of his ties to Sri Lanka's former regime, missing a deadline to register as a foreign lobbyist despite the country paying him millions of dollars for services that "included influencing the U.S. government," Foreign Policy magazine reported in 2015.

Zuberi told the magazine at the time that he "registered not as a lobbyist but as a consultant because that was the extent of my involvement."

___

Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia.

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