A big Democratic donor turned his money to Trump. Now investigators turn to him.
Posted February 6, 2019 6:53 p.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2019 3:01 a.m. EST
CNN — One week after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Imaad Zuberi, an American venture capitalist and longtime Democratic donor, began piling tens of thousands of dollars into Republican coffers.
It was a dramatic shift for Zuberi, who embraced Democrats as his entrée into Washington, serving as a major donor on fundraising committees for Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. To gain access to the incoming regime, Zuberi made a $900,000 donation to Trump's inaugural committee through his company Avenue Ventures LLC.
That donation has now entangled Zuberi in a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan who have launched a wide-ranging probe into the finances around the inauguration.
On Monday, prosecutors with the US attorney's office in Manhattan subpoenaed the inaugural committee for any documents and communications it had with Zuberi and his company. He was the only individual singled out in the subpoena, which also sought the identities of all donors, benefits they received, communications about donations from foreign nationals, and payments to vendors.
It isn't clear why Zuberi is on the prosecutors' radar. He's a big political player, investor and consultant to foreign governments. During the transition and beyond, he spoke briefly with Trump's then-personal attorney Michael Cohen, took a selfie photograph at Trump Tower with Michael Flynn, who later briefly served as Trump's national security adviser, and reportedly had contact at least twice with the President.
Zuberi has not been contacted by special counsel Robert Mueller's office or federal prosecutors, according to his spokesman Steve Rabinowitz.
"Imaad knows nothing about a subpoena, other than what's been written. It's well known that after supporting President Obama and Hillary Clinton, that Imaad gave generously and directly to the Trump inaugural. But many others gave considerably more. For what it's worth, Imaad, as always, gave only his own money from his own resources. If, in fact, he is named in this subpoena -- never mind somehow named alone -- he is bewildered why," Rabinowitz said.
Access to Trump and his world
After Trump's election, Zuberi continued donating to a wide swath of candidates from both political parties but he began piling more money to the Republican party, according to records from the Federal Election Commission. He and his company gave to Trump's re-election fund, the Republican National Committee, campaign funds for House and Senate Republicans and a long list of Trump-friendly candidates across the country.
Zuberi's donation opened the doors to access to the President and his inner circle. He attended an exclusive formal dinner before the inauguration with members of the foreign diplomatic corps where he was photographed with Trump, according to The New York Times.
His donation went through GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren, according to a person familiar with the donation. Wren did not respond to a request for comment.
Zuberi's turn toward Republicans continued to give him audiences with the President well past the inauguration. In addition to the inauguration dinner, Zuberi was part of a small private gathering of donors with Trump in October 2017 at a fundraiser for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, according to The Post and Courier, a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina.
The intimate event brought together about 30 people, mostly donors, and included Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
It wasn't just the President with whom Zuberi had increased access in the wake of his donations.
In 2016 and 2017 Zuberi crossed paths with Cohen, Trump's now-former personal attorney, and had three brief conversations, lasting between two and 10 minutes, according to Rabinowitz. At that time, CNN has reported, Cohen aggressively pitched himself to prominent companies and business leaders as someone who could broker access to Trump and influence the nascent administration.
Cohen has provided more than 70 hours of cooperation with federal prosecutors, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions, and The New York Times has reported the inaugural investigation has stemmed from the investigation into campaign finance violations by Cohen.
Zuberi spoke with Cohen and others about the inauguration, Rabinowitz said, seeking advice about which events to attend. He added that Zuberi did not donate through Cohen. In one conversation, Cohen asked Zuberi to be involved in a Manhattan real estate project, but the discussion never went any further than a brief conversation, the spokesman said.
Foreign ties and a Trump Tower selfie
Zuberi's foreign consulting work has attracted some controversy. Zuberi had a consulting agreement in 2014 on behalf of Sri Lanka, according to records. Foreign Policy reported that the public affairs companies his firm hired were all subpoenaed by the Department of Justice but said none of them were targets of the investigation.
A California-based company had listed Zuberi as a "consultant" for this work in federal filings in 2014. But weeks after the Foreign Policy story was published, Zuberi himself registered with the Justice Department and reported his work for the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, according to a federal database maintained under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. These same laws have entangled other players in Trump's orbit.
Zuberi graduated from the University of Southern California and worked mostly in finance early in his career at TransAmerica and Aegon Group, venturing into private investments and serving on the boards of a few startup companies. He speaks several languages, including Hindi, Mandarin, Arabic and English.
One area Zuberi had done business is in Qatar, where he owns rental properties, his spokesman said. Zuberi met with Qatari officials in New York in December 2016 and accompanied them as they walked to a separate meeting at Trump Tower. Zuberi rode the elevator with the officials but he did not attend the meeting and has no idea then or now who the Qatari officials met with or what the meeting was about, according to the spokesman. In the elevator, he saw Flynn and took a selfie with him and later posted it on his Facebook page.
A spokesman for Ahmed Al-Rumaihi, the then-head of the QIA, previously told CNN, "Mr. Al-Rumaihi was at Trump Tower on December 12, 2016. He was there in his then role as head of Qatar Investments, an internal division of QIA, to accompany the Qatari delegation that was meeting with Trump transition officials on that date."
Photos surfaced of Al-Rumaihi in the building around the same time as Flynn and Cohen. Al-Rumaihi's spokesman said he did not meet with Flynn. The Washington Post reported that Cohen sought a $1 million contract with Qatar in exchange for access to the incoming administration on the heels of the meeting.
Qatar's media attaché in Washington, Jassim Al-Thani, explained later in a statement that the meetings with the incoming administration in December 2016 were to discuss "many critical areas, including: regional security, military cooperation, counterterrorism, and economic partnership." He said Al-Rumaihi "was present at Trump Tower but did not participate in any meetings" with the government delegation.