US Democrats return Chatwal’s illegal campaign funds

NEW YORK: Several top Democratic leaders in the US are returning the funds collected by Indian-American hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal in the wake of his guilty plea to federal prosecutors for making thousands of dollars in illegal donations to political campaigns through “straw donors”.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign said it will return more than $15,000 in cash raised by Chatwal, 70, “Yes, we are returning all funds given or raised by Chatwal,” Jonathan Rosen, who worked for de Blasio’s campaign, told the New York Observer.

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and Senator Mark Warner are also returning the money by donating to charity funds tied to Chatwal who heads the chain of the upscale Hampshire Hotels.

Chatwal had appeared last week before United States district judge I Leo Glasser of the eastern district of New York and pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act by making more than $180,000 in federal campaign donations to three candidates through straw donors who were reimbursed and to witness tampering.

While the identities of the candidates for whom the campaign donations were made were not disclosed, the Wall Street Journal had quoted a law-enforcement official as saying that the donations were made to the political campaigns of former US Senators Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd and former Florida Representative Kendrick Meek.

There is no allegation that the candidates took part in, or were aware of, Chatwal’s scheme, federal prosecutors said.

Chatwal, who has been very close to the Clintons and to senior US senator Harry Reid, was also a key supporter of de Blasio, serving on the host committee of at least one of the candidate’s fund-raisers and bundling thousands of dollars on his behalf, the New York Observer said.

According to records cited by the Observer, de Blasio received nearly $15,000 from Chatwal and his associates, including a $4,950 personal contribution, the maximum allowed, on October 19, 2013, as well as $9,900 in bundled money in 2011.

Three of Chatwal’s relatives also gave de Blasio $4,950, amounting to another nearly $15,000.

Rosen said the campaign intends to return that money too. The Washington Post quoted an adviser to McAuliffe’s political action committee as saying that the governor will donate $4,300 to a non-profit that provides free health care to the poor. Chatwal had donated to McAuliffe’s 2013 gubernatorial campaign.

A spokesman for Warner said the $1,000 Chatwal gave to Warner’s campaign in 2012 will be donated to charity.

Last month, McAuliffe had donated $2,500 to charity after Washington DC businessman Jeffrey Thompson pleaded guilty to several campaign finance violations.

Acting Assistant Attorney General David O’Neil of the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice said Chatwal admitted that he used straw donors to secretly funnel money to political campaigns so that he could “gain access to the politicians, and he coerced another person to hide his crime”.

The US Election Act prohibits making a campaign contribution in the name of another person, including giving funds to a “straw donor,” or a conduit, for the purpose of having the straw donor pass the funds to a federal candidate as the straw donor’s own contribution.

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