An earlier version of this story about campaign donations that Florida businessman Harry Sargeant III raised for Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton incorrectly identified three individuals as being among the donors Sargeant solicited on behalf of McCain. Those donors -- Rite Aid manager Ibrahim Marabeh, and lounge owners Nadia and Shawn Abdalla -- wrote checks to Giuliani and Clinton, not McCain. Also, the first name of Faisal Abdullah, a McCain donor, was misspelled in some versions of the story.
Bundler Collects From Unlikely Donors
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."