By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Just 11 months ago, Hassan Nemazee ranked as one of the Democratic Party's premier money men -- hosting a $28,500-a-head fundraiser in his luxurious home on New York's Upper East Side for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
On Wednesday, Nemazee returned to the same $20 million Park Avenue apartment under house arrest, charged with lying about his assets in order to secure a $74 million loan from Citibank. He is required to wear an electronic security bracelet to ensure that he doesn't leave the building.
The charges prompted a scramble among top Democrats to distance themselves from Nemazee, 59, who together with his wife has contributed more than $750,000 over the past 15 years to federal committees and candidates, including Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, records show.
Biden and several others pledged to return at least some of Nemazee's campaign contributions or donate them to charity, while the Democratic National Committee -- which controls Obama's campaign chest -- said it is considering doing the same.
The criminal charges mark a dramatic fall for Nemazee, the Iranian American son of a shipping tycoon who emerged over the past two decades as a major player in Democratic politics and a prominent voice in the debate over U.S. relations with Iran. He is chairman and chief executive of Nemazee Capital, a New York investment firm that originally focused on real estate development, including some in the Washington suburbs.
Nemazee was President Bill Clinton's nominee in 1999 to be ambassador to Argentina, but his name was withdrawn amid objections from Republicans about the propriety of some of his investment activities.
Nemazee became best known in recent years as a major Democratic fundraiser, working for the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and later becoming finance chairman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. During the 2008 election, he served as co-chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential fundraising efforts and went on to raise more than $500,000 for Obama -- making him one of the top bundlers in Obama's campaign.
Advocates of campaign finance restrictions argue that the case illustrates the perils of relying on major fundraisers, such as Nemazee, who play an increasingly central role in modern political campaigns.
"To become president of the United States, you have to rely very heavily on a very special, narrow group of Americans who have access to a lot of money," said Taylor Lincoln, a research director at the advocacy group Public Citizen, which supports public financing of campaigns.
Although he has also contributed to a handful of Republicans, Nemazee's ties with Democrats are deep and wide. The Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group, found that Nemazee had donated to 75 federal candidates since 1990.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee called on Senate Democrats to "return any and all contributions that they received from this disgraced financier to preserve the integrity of fundraising efforts in 2010."
Vice presidential spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander said Biden will return or donate to charity $2,700 that Nemazee gave to his failed 2008 presidential campaign. But Alexander said similar steps would be impossible for a Biden leadership committee that has disbanded and for Biden's former Senate campaign committee, which "is being wound down" and does not have money to issue a refund.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said the senator will donate to a foreclosure assistance program $4,800 contributed by Nemazee this year.
Officials with the White House and the DNC declined to comment on their plans.
According to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan, Nemazee provided false account numbers and other records in order to secure $74 million in financing from Citibank, which discovered the problems while attempting to confirm that Nemazee had $500 million in assets, as he claimed. Many of the phone numbers and addresses were actually controlled by Nemazee rather than by other financial institutions, the complaint says.
Nemazee was first interviewed by FBI agents on Sunday as he prepared to board a flight to Rome at Newark Liberty International Airport, according to the Justice Department. Nemazee paid back the $74 million loan with a wire transfer on Monday, but he was arrested Tuesday in connection with the original allegations of fraud, the Justice Department said.
After spending a night in jail, Nemazee was released into home detention on Wednesday. His lawyer, Marc Mukasey -- son of former U.S. attorney general Michael B. Mukasey -- did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.