By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008 5:07 PM
The bundle of $2,300 and $4,600 checks that poured into Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign on March 12 came from an unlikely group of California donors: a mechanic from D&D Auto Repair in Whittier, the manager of Taco Bell stores in Riverside, the owners of a liquor store in Colton.
But the man who gathered checks from them is no stranger to McCain -- he shuttled the Republican on his private plane and held a fundraising event for the candidate at his house in Delray Beach, Fla.
Harry Sargeant III, a former naval officer and the owner of an oil-trading company that recently inked defense contracts potentially worth more than $1 billion, is the archetype of a modern presidential money man. The law forbids high-level supporters from writing huge checks, but with help from friends in the Middle East and the former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit -- who now serves as a consultant to his company -- Sargeant has raised more than $100,000 for three presidential candidates from a collection of ordinary people, several of whom professed little interest in the outcome of the election.
After initially helping to raise money for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sargeant, 50, has emerged as a major player in Florida fundraising for McCain. He has also become a conduit between McCain and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who was Sargeant's college fraternity brother and remains a close friend.
Crist, a beneficiary of Sargeant's fundraising network, said he saw nothing unusual in its breadth. "I was not surprised, but I certainly was grateful for his and his family's efforts," he said, adding that he anticipates Sargeant assisting McCain not only with fundraising but also with advice on military affairs and the economy. "He's been enormously helpful . . . already," Crist said.
The 2008 presidential campaign, which could see each side spend close to $500 million, has heightened the importance of "bundlers" such as Sargeant, who not only write checks themselves but also recruit scores of other donors to give the legal limit of $2,300. Questions about such donor networks have repeatedly emerged as points of stress for the campaigns.
In January, Norman Hsu, a top Clinton bundler, was indicted in part on charges of circumventing legal giving limits by routing contributions though "straw donors." Earlier this week, McCain drew questions about more than $60,000 in donations that were made this year to the Republican National Committee and his campaign by an office manager with the Hess oil company and her husband, an Amtrak track foreman. In that case, the couple said they used their own money.
Some of the most prolific givers in Sargeant's network live in modest homes in Southern California's Inland Empire. Most had never given a political contribution before being contacted by Sargeant or his associates. Most said they have never voiced much interest in politics. And in several instances, they had never registered to vote. And yet, records show, some families have ponied up as much as $18,400 for various candidates between December and March.
Both Sargeant and the donors were vague when asked to explain how Sargeant persuaded them to give away so much money.
"I have a lot of Arab business partners. I do a lot of business in the Middle East. I've got a lot of friends," Sargeant said in a telephone interview yesterday. "I ask my friends to support candidates that I think are worthy of supporting. They usually come through for me."
Sargeant's business relationships, and the work they perform together, occur away from the public eye. His firm, International Oil Trading Co. (IOTC), holds several lucrative contracts with the Defense Department to carry fuel to the U.S. military in Iraq.
"It is very difficult and is a very logistically intensive business that we have been able to specialize in," Sargeant said. "We do difficult logistical things that don't necessarily suit a major oil company. It's a niche we've been able to occupy."
The work has not been without controversy. Last month, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) initiated a review of IOTC's contract to determine whether it was overcharging the military for jet fuel, and to learn how the company, which did not submit the lowest bid, landed the contract to supply the fuel. The Pentagon has said that IOTC won the contract because it was the only company with a "letter of authorization" from the Jordanian government to move the fuel across its territory to Iraq.
Sargeant said he has met with Waxman. "We plan to cooperate fully," he said. "Everything we have done on this contract has been in the best interest of the military and the U.S. taxpayers."
Sargeant said the same people who have helped him build relationships around the world also helped him create a vast network. In recruiting some donors, he confirmed he had help from a business associate who formerly was a top counterterrorism official in the CIA.
A review of state and federal campaign finance records found that this collection of donors has been activated four times. Their names -- confirmed by Sargeant -- first appeared in finance records on June 19, 2006, when about 50 of them each donated $500 to Crist's gubernatorial campaign. Sargeant helped lead fundraising for Crist that year.
Thirteen of the donors resurfaced on Dec. 13, 2007, sending a combined $29,200 to Giuliani's campaign at a time when Sargeant was heading up fundraising efforts in Florida for the former mayor. Seventeen of them sent the maximum allowed, $2,300, to Clinton's presidential campaign on Dec. 24. And a dozen of them returned in March to write checks to McCain totaling $50,600.
Brian Rogers, a McCain campaign spokesman, said: "We strictly follow campaign finance law, and where flags are raised, we'll certainly look into it."
Donors reached by phone or interviewed in person declined to explain who asked them to make the contributions.
Ibrahim Marabeh, who is listed in public records as a Rite Aid manager, at first denied that he wrote any political checks. He then said he was asked by "a local person. But I would like not to talk about it anymore." Neither he nor his wife is registered to vote, but the two donated $4,600 to Clinton and $4,600 to Giuliani in December.
At the Twilight Hookah Lounge, owned by Nadia and Shawn Abdalla, patrons smoke tobacco flavored with honey and fruit from a menu that includes the strawberry-flavored Sex on the Beach and the strong, orange-flavored Fuzzy Navel.
The Abdallas, who are not registered to vote, said in an interview that they recalled writing a check to an organization in Miami, because a person with that organization was a friend of their mother's. They said they could not remember his name.
Nader, 39, and Sahar Alhawash, 28, of Colton, Calif, who at one point ran the Avon Village Liquor store, donated a total of $18,400 to Giuliani, Clinton and McCain between December and March. About 80 people in the country made such large contributions to all three, and most were wealthy business executives, such as Donald Trump. The Alhawashes declined to comment about the donations. Abdullah Abdullah, a supervisor at several Taco Bell restaurants in the Riverside area, and his wife have donated $9,200 to McCain.
Reached at work, Abdullah said he knows little about the campaign. "I have no idea. I'll be honest with you," he said. "I'm involved in the restaurant business. My brother Faisal recommended John McCain. Whenever he makes a recommendation, we do it."
Faisal Abdullah, 49, said he helped organize all of the contributions from members of his family. When he was asked who solicited the contributions from him, he said: "Why does it matter who? I'm telling you we made the contribution. We funneled it through the channel in Florida because that's the contact we had. I was responsible for collecting it."
Staff writer Ashley Surdin in Los Angeles and research director Lucy Shackelford, research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.