By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008
Sen. John McCain's campaign is returning about $50,000 raised by a Florida oil executive because some of the funds were collected by a foreign national and came from donors who may not support the candidate, aides said yesterday.
"We thought it was an issue that there were people giving to the campaign who had no intention of supporting or voting for John McCain," said Brian Rogers, a campaign spokesman. "So we thought it was an appropriate measure at this point."
The decision to return the money follows a report in The Washington Post that found that Harry Sargeant III submitted a bundle of checks for $2,300 and $4,600 on a single day in March, all of them from donors in Southern California who had never given before this year's campaign and did not appear to be likely candidates to contribute as much as $18,400 per household.
Although the contributions were credited to Sargeant, whose company has Defense Department contracts worth as much as $1.4 billion, the checks came from Americans of seemingly modest means.
Donors included the manager of Riverside-area Taco Bell restaurants, a couple who at one time ran a liquor store in Colton and a Whittier auto mechanic. Sargeant, who runs the International Oil Trading Co., in Boca Raton, Fla., said he asked several friends and colleagues to gather the funds for McCain. He had done the same for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) during the primaries.
Sargeant said in an interview yesterday that at times he left the task of collecting the checks to a longtime business partner, Mustafa Abu Naba'a, who is not an American citizen. According to court records, Abu Naba'a is a dual citizen of Jordan and the Dominican Republic.
Money raised by Abu Naba'a is being returned. Sargeant raised at least an additional $460,000 for McCain, some of which was gathered on his behalf by a former high-ranking CIA anti-terrorism expert who is now Sargeant's business partner. Sargeant did not name any of the other associates who may have helped him with fundraising.
Rogers said the campaign wrote to donors whose checks Sargeant bundled, "reminding them of the campaign finance law and providing some information as to how to get a refund if that's what they desire."
It is illegal for a foreign national to donate to an American political campaign, but election law experts said yesterday it is unclear whether a foreigner can solicit or bundle checks for a candidate.
"There's probably very little law on this," said Fred Wertheimer, a campaign finance expert. "If it is not illegal for a foreign national to bundle checks, it ought to be, since it's illegal for a foreign national to make contributions in the first place."
Abu Naba'a holds a one-third share in Sargeant's company, which supplies oil to the U.S. military in Iraq. He and Sargeant are defendants in a lawsuit by a third partner, Mohammad Anwar Farid al-Saleh, a Jordanian. The suit alleges that Saleh was defrauded out of his share of the proceeds from the business.
"I've been friends with Mohammad for 15 years," Sargeant said. "People always make allegations in lawsuits. It's purely a commercial dispute."