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Campaign finance watchdog issues massive fine for foreign national’s Trump super PAC donation

POLITICO logo POLITICO 4/9/2022 By Zach Montellaro and Myah Ward

The Federal Election Commission fined the companies of a Canadian billionaire nearly a million dollars for a contribution to a super PAC supporting then-President Donald Trump, after the agency found “reason to believe” that the donations violated a federal law on foreign nationals contributing to American political committees or campaigns.

Companies controlled by Barry Zekelman — a Canadian billionaire and the CEO, chair and owner of Zekelman Industries — agreed to pay $975,000 to close an investigation by the FEC into $1.75 million worth of donations made to America First Action, the pro-Trump super PAC, throughout 2018.

The fine is the third-largest in FEC history, according to the Campaign Legal Center, the nonprofit group that filed the original complaint about the donations in 2019.

“We applaud the FEC for doing its job. Imposing this serious penalty helps protect the voices of voters from being drowned out by foreign corporations and other special interests,” Adav Noti, the vice president and legal director of Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. “Super PACs should now be on notice that there are major consequences for breaking the ban on foreign contributions.”

CLC made the agency documents public late Friday afternoon. The CLC obtained the documents because of an agency practice that releases relevant findings to the complainants first, with the documents being made more broadly public roughly 30 days after the initial disclosure.

According to agency documents, Zekelman discussed the donations with officers of a U.S.-based subsidiary his company controls, Wheatland Tube, which ultimately contributed to America First Action three separate times in 2018.

U.S. law prohibits foreign nationals from directly or indirectly making a contribution or donation in connection with federal, state or local elections.

The original complaint was based on a 2019 story from The New York Times, which also first reported the fine on Friday.

The conciliation agreement between Zekelman’s companies — Zekelman Industries and Wheatland Tube — was accepted by the agency on Thursday. In the agreement, the companies contended that the contributions were “made with the good faith understanding that they were permissible,” and the agency itself “did not find that the violation was knowing or willful.”

The conciliation agreement also requires that the two companies request that America First Action either refund the $1.75 million to the companies or give the money to the U.S. Treasury.

America First Action, Thomas Spulak — an attorney who signed the agreement for the companies — and Zekelman Industries did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Several steel companies backed Trump with monetary contributions while he was in office, though Zekelman Industries was the biggest steel industry donor, according to the Times report. Zekelman’s lobbying efforts landed him a private dining room dinner with Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. in spring of 2018, according to the report, where the group discussed incoming U.S. quotas on steel imports from competitors in South Korea.

Zekelman, who does not have U.S. citizenship, told the Times in 2019 that he was not involved in the decision to donate to America First Action, but that he discussed the matter with other executives after a representative from the PAC solicited donations.

He argued that the donation was legal because the final decision to contribute was made by American citizens or legal U.S. residents on his board, noting that the money came via Wheatland Tube, the U.S.-based subsidiary of Zekelman Industries.

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