L.A. venture capitalist Imaad Zuberi a focus in federal probe of Trump’s inaugural committee
On election day 2016, Los Angeles venture capitalist and Democratic donor Imaad Zuberi took to Facebook to tout his proximity to the person he thought would be ascending to the White House.
“The next president of the United States of America Hillary Clinton,” Zuberi wrote next to a photo of himself with a beaming Hillary Clinton, whose presidential bid he had backed with more than $600,000.
When she lost to Donald Trump, he rapidly adjusted.
In December, Zuberi stopped by the president-elect’s offices at Trump Tower in New York in the company of a delegation of Qatari dignitaries. The following month, he donated $900,000 to the president’s inaugural committee and $100,000 to help pay off lingering debt from the 2016 Republican National Convention. In February 2017, he posted a photo of himself at a restaurant near Mar-a-Lago with then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Zuberi’s rapid transformation from one of Clinton’s biggest fundraisers into a major Trump booster has drawn the attention of federal prosecutors in New York, who have homed in on the investor as part of a probe into the president’s inaugural committee.
A sweeping subpoena served on the committee this week seeks a wide range of information, including any documents related to foreign contributors. Separately, the subpoena specifically sought all communications related to Zuberi and his firm, Avenue Ventures.
The exact nature of prosecutors’ interest in Zuberi is unclear. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.
The inquiry has put a spotlight on a prolific donor with extensive foreign ties — particularly in the Middle East — who has doled out millions to politicians over the last 15 years, according to campaign finance records.
Zuberi, who has plastered his Facebook page with pictures of himself with major political figures such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, largely backed candidates on the left before Trump’s election.
With his wife, Willa Rao, he donated more than $2 million to Democratic candidates and committees between 2004 and 2016, sums that put him in the upper echelon of fundraisers for Obama and Hillary Clinton. Since Trump’s election, the couple’s giving has flipped: They have contributed $1.78 million to Republicans and just $206,000 to Democrats, records show.
“He’s probably the only person in the Hillary world and the Obama world to be in both of them and then move as quickly to Trump,” said one Democratic fundraiser who knows Zuberi and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. “It does make you wonder why he would do that and what he was trying to show.”
In an interview, Zuberi said he does not know why prosecutors would be interested in his interactions with Trump’s inaugural committee. He said he has had no contact with authorities, adding that he was surprised to learn in news reports that his name was in the subpoena.
Zuberi said he has always supported politicians in both parties, with an emphasis on candidates who he believes will boost the economy and support American exports.
“I’m not giving based on party,” he said. “I’m giving based on people.”
But Zuberi was candid about his view that he sees a history of political giving as a way for those without powerful connections to open doors, saying that some day he may want to be an ambassador or receive a government appointment.
“It’s not something you pick up the phone or you pick up your checkbook and just start doing it two weeks before. You have to build a track record, right?” he said. “I’m not coming from a political family like the Kennedys or the Kerry family, where just my name will open doors. I have to give donations.”
Among those whom he has supported is Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who received nearly $30,000 in donations from Zuberi and his wife between 2013 and 2017, campaign finance records show. Zuberi posted a photo on Facebook of himself with Engel and President Obama in August 2016.
Tim Mulvey, an aide to Engel, said that Zuberi asked Engel in 2017 to meet with the Qatari foreign minister — a request that coincided with a similar request from the Qatari Embassy in Washington.
Engel met with the foreign minister in November 2017, Mulvey said. “Such requests and meetings are routine for members of the Foreign Affairs Committee,” he said.
Steve Rabinowitz, a spokesman for Zuberi, said the investor had no recollection of requesting such a meeting.
“Around what looks like the time of this meeting, Imaad was seeking lots of connections for the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar,” he said, noting that the Qatari foreign minister is the head of the fund. “He has no recollection of this particular request but made other requests like it, but never of a government official.”
Zuberi’s decision to support Trump came quickly after the election, and he said he initially offered to donate $250,000 to the 2017 inaugural committee. But Zuberi said he was told the sum would not get him tickets to all the receptions, balls and other events, which he said he was eager to attend, in part so he could network with the new president’s New York real estate associates.
He agreed to increase his donation to $1 million, with $900,000 for the inaugural committee and $100,000 for the convention fund.
“Slowly, I was encouraged into giving, or driven into giving more,” he said.
Only American citizens or legal permanent residents are permitted to contribute to a presidential inaugural committee. Federal prosecutors, including special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, have been exploring for months whether foreign money was routed through U.S. citizens into efforts to support Trump.
Zuberi noted that he has ties with business and political leaders in many countries but said he did not serve as a straw donor.
“It’s not foreign money. It’s my money,” he said.
Zuberi, 48, was born in Pakistan and migrated with his parents to the United States when he was 3 years old, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen. He grew up in Albany, N.Y., where he said he became interested in politics by the time he was in his early teens.
He moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, where he said he was both an undergraduate and graduate student.
In 1996, he served in the U.S. Army for about six months before being honorably discharged because of a knee injury, according to Rabinowitz.
Zuberi said he got his start in business working for the Transamerica insurance company in locations such as Japan, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
He eventually set up Avenue Ventures, a firm specializing in venture capital, private equity and other investments.
According to a biography provided by his spokesman, Zuberi has “closed over $55 billion in transactions” at the company. Zuberi said most of the firm’s clients — whom he declined to name — are from California, while others are abroad, including a number in Bahrain and other nations in the Persian Gulf region.
Zuberi “has deep contacts in the Middle East and on the [Indian] subcontinent and apparently used these contacts to work business deals in the United States and in the Middle East, according to what he described,” said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former supreme allied commander of NATO and a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate. Zuberi’s company hired Clark to help restructure a bankrupt hotel in Bahrain in 2013.
Zuberi also serves as an economic advisor to the Chinese government, according to his biography. And in 2015 he registered as a lobbyist for the government of Sri Lanka — a role that drew scrutiny from the Justice Department, which investigated whether his work violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Foreign Policy magazine reported that year. No public action was taken. Zuberi said that as far as he knew, nothing came of the matter.
At the time, Zuberi was emerging as a major fundraiser for Clinton’s presidential campaign. Internal campaign memos released by WikiLeaks show that Clinton staffers noted the Foreign Policy piece as a possible red flag in a memo prepared for campaign chairman John Podesta before he was set to meet with Zuberi in September 2015 to thank him for his support.
Podesta did not respond to a request for comment.
Zuberi said he ended up at the Trump Tower one day in December 2016 by happenstance. That morning, he said, he met with a delegation from Qatar to discuss a possible investment in a new real estate fund in New York he was trying to launch.
Learning that the group was headed to meet with Trump aides, Zuberi said he offered to walk with them to the meeting and ended up riding with them in the elevator at Trump Tower before leaving the group.
On the elevator, Rabinowitz said Zuberi ran into incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn and took a selfie with him in an encounter that lasted seconds.
The Qataris subsequently met with Flynn and Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon.
“I met nobody,” Zuberi said. “I was an insignificant person there.”
In the days following the Trump Tower meeting, Zuberi indicated on Facebook that he visited both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
During Trump’s inauguration, he said he spoke to Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen about potentially investing in the same real estate fund he had pitched to the Qataris. But he said that the idea for the fund fizzled and that no money changed hands.
Rosalind S. Helderman, Michael Kranish and Tom Hamburger write for the Washington Post.