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There was no shortage of underground Trumpworld figures for reporters to dig into during the years-long Russia investigation.
But in 2018, we got a tip about a controversial donor who’d flown so far under the radar that he’d escaped public detection.
The Imaad Zuberi story came to us in a way these stories usually come to reporters. We’d been investigating Trump’s inauguration in an attempt to try to determine who in that orbit had paid for access, and then some, and whether any donor had contributed foreign funds to the committee.
For months we spoke with people who laid out how much Trump’s team spent planning the event—much of it to just a few contractors. More troubling, though, were the ways in which individuals used their wealth to not only gain access to the fancy dinners and galas that week in January, but also to buy their way into the administration or gain favor with those who would serve in it.
After news broke that multiple RNC finance chairmen were in legal trouble, including Elliot Broidy, we focused on following the money. We wanted to know if other individuals had used their inaugural fundraising/donor status to benefit themselves or their businesses.
That’s how we found Zuberi.
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We were tipped off to his appearance and involvement in the inauguration and that there was a bigger story to tell about his connections to Trumpworld.
For many political reporters, Zuberi was a relatively unknown donor. He’d given money to both Democrats and Republicans and was well-known in the Los Angeles political scene. Zuberi played the political game well, earning meetings with top lawmakers on Capitol Hill throughout the Obama and Trump administrations. To be honest, I’m not sure how we didn’t find this story sooner. It was right in front of us—and everyone else. He was one of the chairs of the global dinner—where foreigners, including officials and money makers, come to mingle with the president’s incoming team and advisors—and he had donated $1 million to the inaugural committee. And, most importantly, he’d had significant brushes with the law.
In 2015, Foreign Policy reported that Zuberi had failed to disclose his ties to the Sri Lanka government, which paid him to influence policy in Washington.
Today, Zuberi is facing similar charges. In January, he was charged in New York with obstructing a federal investigation into donations to President Trump’s inaugural committee. In the filing, prosecutors accused Zuberi of, among other things, deleting emails from foreigners who gave him money around the same time he donated to the Trump inaugural. Zuberi contacted his email service provider seeking advice on “how to ensure that copies of his emails were not stored on a server,” according to the filing.
We never reported as much as the DOJ prosecutors laid out. But we were on our way. We had published a roadmap of sorts outlining Zuberi’s foreign connections, his interactions with shady Trumpworld figures such as Michael Cohen, and his role in organizing a major inaugural event in which foreign nationals from a slew of different countries cozied up to people like the new National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. We brought Zuberi into the limelight—something he and his team fought back against with vigor.
The truth is I had a frank conversation with Zuberi with his flak on the other line. I pressed him on his work with Qatar and his interactions with Cohen and Broidy. I pressed him on the breakfast he’d been a part of and his donation to the Trump inaugural. Zuberi told me what he had discussed with both men. When we published the story he denied ever talking and speaking with me about those interactions. It was a lie and the first indication that I was dealing with an operator—someone who wanted to manipulate the truth to try and divert federal attention.
At every turn—I had multiple conversations with his team—Zuberi pushed back on any notion that he had done anything wrong. “He donates to both Democrats and Republicans all the time. This isn’t political. There’s no story to tell here.” It was all classic spin. Until it wasn’t.
As I continued to dig on Zuberi the threats grew stronger. His legal team got on the case. They demanded to know who my sources were, threatening me with legal action unless I changed this or that in my reporting. They tried to sniff around my conversations with others. They sent letter after letter after letter.
Then they stopped.
A few months later, The Wall Street Journal broke a story that prosecutors had served the inaugural committee with a subpoena, naming only one person: Imaad Zuberi.
Zuberi pled guilty to obstruction of justice charges in New York and illegal lobbying and tax evasion charges in Los Angeles.
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