Prosecutors urge $10-million fine, up to 13 years in prison for L.A. Trump donor

Imaad Zuberi with his attorney Thomas O'Brien
Imaad Zuberi, left, leaves the federal courthouse with his attorney Thomas O’Brien in November 2019.
(Brian Melley / Associated Press)

Federal prosecutors want a Los Angeles venture capitalist to spend years in prison and pay millions in fines for an array of crimes, including obstructing an investigation into President Trump’s inaugural committee and concealing work he did lobbying for foreign groups.

In a filing this week in U.S. District Court, prosecutors asked a judge to sentence Imaad Zuberi, 50, to between 10 and nearly 13 years in prison. They also are seeking a $10-million fine and more than $15 million in unpaid taxes.

Zuberi, who lives in Arcadia, pleaded guilty in June to obstructing the inquiry into contributions to the committee that put on the president’s 2017 inauguration. And last year, he pleaded guilty to separate charges of tax evasion, as well as federal lobbying and campaign finance violations. He is scheduled to be sentenced for all the crimes on Nov. 30.

Zuberi’s attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, expressed surprise at the government’s sentencing recommendation.

“Mr. Zuberi is extremely remorseful for his conduct and demonstrated that by quickly pleading guilty, paying millions toward his tax debt, and refocusing on his many charitable works,” O’Brien wrote in an email Wednesday. “We are disappointed with the government’s recommendation, but in the end we have faith that the judge will impose a just sentence that will take into account many positive factors ignored by the government.”

The obstruction charge stemmed from a $900,000 donation Zuberi made through his investment company in December 2016 to Trump’s inaugural committee.

Zuberi and his company were named in a subpoena that investigators served on the committee, which raised more than $100 million and was dogged by questions over whether foreign donors used contributions to buy influence with the president. The investigation led to no criminal charges.

At least $50,000 of Zuberi’s donation was money given to him by another campaign donor, who Zuberi failed to disclose, documents said. When the donor asked for a refund after investigators began looking into the committee’s funding, Zuberi “back-dated the refund check” to make it appear that he had returned the money before he learned of the investigation, prosecutors said.

He also deleted emails with other individuals who provided money to him around that same time, including emails with an unnamed foreign national who transferred approximately $5.8 million into the bank account Zuberi used to make his committee contributions, according to court documents.

In the earlier case, Zuberi pleaded guilty, among other crimes, to falsifying records in an effort to conceal work he did to lobby U.S. government officials on behalf of foreign entities — a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

His FARA offenses are “among the most wide-ranging ever prosecuted,” prosecutors said.


A deal Zuberi struck with the Sri Lankan government was part of the case against the investor. In 2014, Sri Lankan officials hired Zuberi to improve the country’s image in the United States, which had been damaged badly by the government’s brutal military campaign against the minority Tamil population. Zuberi hid his efforts from U.S. officials and lined his pockets with $5.6 million of the $6.5 million Sri Lanka paid him, according to the court records.

And prosecutors cited work Zuberi did for the governments of Turkey and Qatar, among other countries. In the sentencing memo filed this week, they wrote he “was able to defeat proposed legislation and change U.S. foreign policy to meet his clients’ needs,” but did not provide details.

Zuberi’s allegiance was more to power than political party. Before President Trump’s election in 2016, Zuberi and his wife, Willa Rao, made substantial donations to democratic politicians such as Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

In a 2019 interview with the Washington Post, he was candid about his view that political contributions can provide access to influence.

“I’m not coming from a political family like the Kennedys or the Kerry family, where just my name will open doors,” he said. “I have to give donations.”

In a sentencing memorandum filed in May, Zuberi’s attorneys did not specify the punishment they want U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips to impose, but claimed the government had exaggerated the extent of Zuberi’s criminal behavior, overstated the size of various campaign contributions and included incidents that were not relevant to the cases against Zuberi. And by seeking a harsh sentence, they said prosecutors unfairly were trying to make an example of Zuberi.

“The government is whispering, and sometimes yelling, in the Court’s ear that Mr. Zuberi is Paul Manafort, Bernie Madoff, and Leona Helmsley all wrapped into one mendacious package,” they wrote in the filing, emphasizing that Zuberi should be credited for accepting responsibility for his crimes.

In the filing, Zuberi’s lawyers pointed to the 5-year sentence probation officials recommended, calling it “lengthy” but suggesting it was more in line with what he deserves.

But prosecutors said the severity and breadth of Zuberi’s crimes call for a prison sentence of between 121 and 151 months.

“Clandestine foreign efforts to subvert U.S. democratic processes in recent years have caused a significant portion of the body politic to lose faith in our public institutions,” they wrote. “It is of crucial importance to restore such faith so that our government can function in accordance with its founding principles.”

They are also recommending that the judge impose a $10-million fine, order a $15.7-million restitution to the IRS for unpaid taxes, and order a payment of $250,000 for prosecution costs.

Zuberi is currently free on $3-million bond, although prosecutors have asked the judge to significantly increase the size of the bond to deter Zuberi from fleeing.

City News Service contributed to this report.