A trove of newly released court filings provides new insight into how a high-flying businessman and prolific political donor pushing multibillion-dollar deals related to Libyan riches amassed under Moammar Gadhafi’s regime tried to maneuver his way into Joe Biden’s inner circle.
What follows is the swampy tale of a man who thought he knew how Washington really worked — and how his dream of becoming a D.C. insider turned into a legal nightmare.
Imaad Zuberi, a naturalized American of Pakistani and Indian descent raised in Albany, N.Y., leveraged political and charitable contributions to try to broker business deals. Describing himself as head of a venture capital firm, he favored Democrats, but courted politicians across the spectrum as friends. In 2016, Zuberi was a hard-core Hillary Clinton backer and scoffed at candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim stance. But once Trump won, Zuberi did a whiplash-inducing 180 and jumped on the Trump bandwagon, donating nearly $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.
Now, as Zuberi awaits sentencing next week on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent, tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and obstruction of justice, a slew of his emails, text messages and other records have gone public, detailing his efforts to work the levers of power in Washington and elsewhere.
Among the most intriguing revelations are text messages from Zuberi describing outreach to Fran Person, who spent eight years as a personal aide or so-called body man to then-Vice President Biden before leaving the White House in 2014.
Soon thereafter, Zuberi embarked on a frenzied effort to help new leaders in Libya unlock as much as $30 billion worth of government assets frozen in the chaos that followed the fall of Gadhafi’s ill-fated regime. But the deal to release the assets of the Libyan Investment Authority required the blessing of U.S. officials.
The WhatsApp messages show Zuberi discussing a potential deal on the Libya funds involving Person and others, as well as arranging meetings on the topic in Washington and Paris.
“Did you discuss the budget that Fran Bassel and Mike had?” Zuberi told a close associate whose name is blacked out in the court records.
Sources familiar with the project said the others mentioned are Bassel Korkor, an attorney, and Michael Mische, a University of Southern California business professor who taught Zuberi years earlier.
Zuberi goes on to caution his associate not to make off-color comments about women in front of Person.
“Don’t talk to Fran about women. … He is close to VP Biden. … He is like adopted son to VP,” Zuberi wrote.
At another point, Zuberi’s associate seems to have just learned about the death of Biden’s son Beau, days earlier. “My deepest condolences to Biden,” the associate wrote.
During the Paris meeting, held at the Four Seasons Hotel in May 2015, Zuberi, Person and others met with the Libyan deputy prime minister — or someone given that title by one of the competing factions in Libya at the time, a person involved said.
In another message, Zuberi discusses a “Libyan Senator” calling Person. No further explanation is offered in the portion of the messages made public by the court.
It’s unclear what Zuberi thought Person, who was an offensive lineman on the University of South Carolina football team before going to work for Biden, could bring to the table. Reversing the sanctions imposed in 2011 would have required approval of the U.S. Treasury Department and likely the United Nations. At the time, Clinton had formally announced her presidential bid the previous month. Biden kept the door open to running until ruling it out in October.
In the messages, Zuberi also expresses frustration at the Libyans haggling over the percentage middlemen like him might make by freeing the Libyan assets. “You want billions unfrozen,” he wrote. “This is nothing.”
The messages also convey Zuberi’s view that policy in the U.S. can be heavily influenced by liberally spreading money around to political and charitable causes.
When “Clinton Cash” hit bookstores in 2015, it was intended as an indictment of the Clinton Foundation and a dagger to Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes. But Zuberi viewed the book, written by Republican operative Peter Schweizer, as a how-to guide to doing business in D.C.
“On the way to Washington, I read the new book Clinton Cash. You must read because it discussed how Indian businessman helped make US Indian civilian nuclear deal via Clinton,” Zuberi wrote to his associate on the Libya project. “This is how America work. How Washington work.”
“Let me handle the U.S. people,” Zuberi added.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment Thursday on the new round of disclosures. But, late last year, Biden transition spokesperson Andrew Bates acknowledged that Biden had met Zuberi on several occasions, but insisted the businessman had no unusual entrée to Biden.
“Mr. Zuberi’s emails heavily misrepresent and embellish the interactions described, which were all in group settings — mostly donor roundtables,” Bates said, in a statement first provided to the Associated Press. “Mr. Zuberi was vetted at the time and passed because he obviously concealed the activities in question, which neither then-Vice President nor the others to whom he donated had any way of knowing about.”
Person, who mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Rep. Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina in 2016, declined to comment. Korkor also declined to comment.
Contacted by POLITICO, Mische acknowledged giving Zuberi some advice about the Libya effort.
“The Imaad part was trying to figure out how to do the deal and make money off of it? How would you really make that happen?” Mische said. “Each of us brought a piece of expertise.”
However, Mische said he does not believe it ever proceeded. “To my knowledge, it was never consummated. I was never engaged to pursue it,” the professor said.
Leaders of the Libyan Investment Authority are still pressing the U.N. to lift sanctions, a decade after they were imposed, news accounts say. The Treasury Department’s website says U.S. sanctions against the fund remain in place. Libyan officials complain they’ve missed out on $4.3 billion in income and gains they could have realized if the sovereign wealth fund had access to frozen funds and assets.
A lawyer for Zuberi, Tom O’Brien, declined an interview request Thursday.
None of the men named in the publicly released Libya texts were charged in the case.
In addition to the Libya-related project, prosecutors say Zuberi did unregistered lobbying work for the Sri Lankan government, on behalf of a businessman in Bahrain in a dispute with Saudi Arabian officials, and for Dmitry Firtash — a Ukrainian oligarch linked to Trump’s controversial dealings in Ukraine.
Zuberi pleaded guilty to evading taxes, flouting campaign finance laws and failing to register in connection with the Sri Lanka project, but has disputed many of the government’s other claims.
He also admitted last year to obstructing the probe into the Trump inaugural’s finances by backdating a reimbursement check to a foreign donor, but Zuberi’s lawyers contend that the government double-crossed him by filing that charge in New York after agreeing not to pursue an obstruction case in the foreign-agent probe in Los Angeles.
A filing by Zuberi’s defense dismissed the Foreign Agents Registration Act offense as a “technical reporting violation.”
Los Angeles-based U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips ordered the unsealing on Tuesday after complaints from news organizations, including POLITICO and the Associated Press, about excessive secrecy in the case.
The judge ordered that some names in the filings be redacted, or blacked out, but allowed others to be released. Person, referred to as “Person R” in some documents about the probe, was among those Phillips said could be identified.
Prosecutors said some involved in the case had expressed safety concerns about their identities being released. Some of the secrecy also involved proceedings under the Classified Information Protection Act. It’s unclear what information is at stake, but Zuberi appears to have sought to invoke his cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies and diplomats as grounds for leniency. His defense team last year said he deserved credit for what it called his “remarkable and extensive assistance to the country [that] spanned over a decade.”
Prosecutors are asking Phillips, a Clinton appointee, to sentence Zuberi to more than 10 years in prison. Probation officials have recommended several years less. Zuberi’s defense says 10 years would be wildly excessive and have urged a shorter sentence, but have not made a specific recommendation.
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