Sri Lanka Express

Commentary

Wikileaks shows lobbyist Imaad Zuberi who took GOSL for $6.5m ride a close Clinton ally

Imaad Zuberi with presidential nominee Hillary Clinton
Despite FARA violation and links to DOJ probe, future looks bright for top campaign bundler
By Hassina Leelarathna
In August 2015, in a highly-publicized investigative article an American global affairs publication portrayed lobbyist Imaad Zuberi as being under a cloud of suspicion after collecting massive fees from the former Sri Lankan government under dubious circumstances. The Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine, which claims to reach an international audience of millions, charged that the Pakistani-American who had bundled top dollars for President Obama and other Democrats had failed to disclose the “extent of his ties to a foreign government.” Zuberi was said to be linked to a Department of Justice probe and that his financial records as well as those of the lobbyists involved in his Sri Lanka project had been subpoenaed.

By the tone of it, Zuberi was in legal hot water with federal agents poised to break down his door any minute.

 But more than a year later, Zuberi’s career is soaring and it’s easy to see why.  Among a tranche of hacked Wikileaks emails recently released, Zuberi shows up as a close associate of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s top campaign managers.  And they’re not very finicky about where the money comes from or who brings it to them.  

In a series of emails from April 2015 hacked from the account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, the Democratic presidential nominee’s senior  officials debate if the campaign should accept donations from those registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), among them Imaad Zuberi.  (Continued below)



The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was enacted in 1938. FARA is a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. 
On April 13, 2015, Dennis Cheng (finance director for the campaign) tells campaign staffer Karuna Seshasai : “ Karuna, can you recirculate the list of foreign agents that we know of so far? It’s not a huge # in terms of the # of people – but it does include people we are close with like Tony Podesta, DLA Piper, etc

The “people-we-are-close-with” list Seshasai provides includes Zuberi, shown as a partner of Beltway Strategies (the company shown in FARA documents as the signatory to the initial consultative agreement with Sri Lanka’s Office of the Monitoring MP for External Affairs).

However, by then, Zuberi, a venture capitalist and top bundler for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, was no longer an agent for Sri Lanka.  He had ended his 4-month long stint with the Sri Lankan government in September 2014, after pocketing a whopping $ 6.5 million.   Colombo had retained him to improve sagging relations with the U.S., but clearly Zuberi had delivered nothing as evidenced by the fact that President Rajapaksa was “regime changed” in January 2015.    
At the time the Hillary campaign was debating accepting his donations, Zuberi was also in violation of FARA regulations for failing to register as an agent for Sri Lanka with the Justice Department within the time period required by law. 

Under FARA rules, lobbyists who have taken on a foreign client must make the relationship known to the Justice Department within 10 days of signing a contract with the foreign entity.
Zuberi  had billed and received his first payment as a lobbyist in May 2014 but did not register as an agent until August of 2014.

If the Clinton campaign was not aware of these details in April 2015, it should certainly have been alerted when Foreign Policy ran that lengthy expose on  Zuberi headlined “Elite Fundraiser for Obama and Clinton Linked to Justice Department Probe.” (Continued below)

FP noted that a US team sent to Sri Lanka to trace funds (“as much as $10 billion”) allegedly stolen by the Mahinda Rajapakse government had noted payments made to Zuberi and the WR Group and that the DOJ had subpoenaed the lobbying firms as part the investigation.

Participating in a lobbying campaign without registering with the Justice Department "carries legal peril," the article warned, noting that a former Republican congressman had been sentenced to a year in jail for the same offense.


"Take the money!"
- Jennifer Palmieri, Communictions Director
In reality, prosecutions for FARA violations are rare.  Only seven criminal cases have been brought in the last 50 years according to a government watchdog report released in September this year.  

Not surprising then that the Clinton campaign has not let the cloud of a Justice Department probe come between it and a top producer like Zuberi. 

The April 2015 email discussions ended with campaign manager Robby Mook declaring  “… in a complete U-turn, I’m okay just taking the money and dealing with any attacks. Are you guys okay with that?” and Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign’s communications director, renders the inevitable greenlight: “Take the money!”
And they have: $100,000 from Zuberi in December and $110,000 in January 2016, both donations going to the Hillary Victory Fund.  Zuberi has also donated between $250,000 and $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation and thousands to the Democratic National Committee and to the individual campaigns of dozens of leading politicians running for office in November.  

All of which has not gone unrewarded.  As a  contributor to the Hillary Victory Fund, Zuberi now has a spot on Clinton’s National Finance Committee, one of three Pakistani-Americans to make the list.  In January, Zuberi was named a member of Clinton’s Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Leadership Council --  a group of over 150 elected officials, community, and grassroots leaders.

That’s just for starters.  Should Clinton win the White House, high-end donors are likely to be well rewarded.  Handing out plum jobs to loyal party supporters is an age-old tradition in the US, but Obama has taken it to a new level and Clinton is likely to follow his lead.   In Obama’s first term, nearly 200 of his big donors had landed government jobs and advisory posts or won federal contracts worth millions of dollars for their business interests.  The Center for Public Integrity reported in
2011 that:

“Overall, 184 of 556, or about one-third of Obama bundlers or their spouses joined the administration in some role. But the percentages are much higher for the big-dollar bundlers. Nearly 80 percent of those who collected more than $500,000 for Obama took “key administration posts,” as defined by the White House. More than half the 24 ambassador nominees who were bundlers raised $500,000.”

Among Obama’s “bundler appointments” was Louis Susman, a former Citigroup banker in Chicago once dubbed the "vacuum cleaner" for his phenomenal success sucking up money.  Susman was appointed ambassador to London after bundling between $200,000 and $500,000 for Obama in 2008.  But the price of ambassadorships has gone up since then.  Susman’s replacement to the London posting in 2013 (Obama’s second term) was Mathew Barzun who bundled at least $500,000 for the Obama campaign in 2008 and at least $500,000 again in 2012.





Even if Zuberi’s contributions might not be sufficient to buy him an ambassador position, his progress up the Washington pecking order is assured.   As political strategist Robby Mook (currently Clinton’s campaign manager) told John Podesta in a November 2014 email: “… the Clintons won’t forget what their friends have done for them.”
… the Clintons won’t forget what their friends have done for them.”