Harry Sargeant III, a former naval officer and the owner of an oil-trading company that recently inked defense contracts potentially worth more than $1 billion, is the archetype of a modern presidential money man. The law forbids high-level supporters from writing huge checks, but with help from friends in the Middle East and the former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit -- who now serves as a consultant to his company -- Sargeant has raised more than $100,000 for three presidential candidates from a collection of ordinary people, several of whom professed little interest in the outcome of the election.
Some of the most prolific givers in Sargeant's network live in modest homes in Southern California's Inland Empire. Most had never given a political contribution before being contacted by Sargeant or his associates. Most said they have never voiced much interest in politics. And in several instances, they had never registered to vote. And yet, records show, some families have ponied up as much as $18,400 for various candidates between December and March.
Both Sargeant and the donors were vague when asked to explain how Sargeant persuaded them to give away so much money.
"I have a lot of Arab business partners. I do a lot of business in the Middle East. I've got a lot of friends," Sargeant said in a telephone interview yesterday. "I ask my friends to support candidates that I think are worthy of supporting. They usually come through for me."
Sargeant said the same people who have helped him build relationships around the world also helped him create a vast network. In recruiting some donors, he confirmed he had help from a business associate who formerly was a top counterterrorism official in the CIA.
A review of state and federal campaign finance records found that this collection of donors has been activated four times. Their names -- confirmed by Sargeant -- first appeared in finance records on June 19, 2006, when about 50 of them each donated $500 to Crist's gubernatorial campaign. Sargeant helped lead fundraising for Crist that year.
Thirteen of the donors resurfaced on Dec. 13, 2007, sending a combined $29,200 to Giuliani's campaign at a time when Sargeant was heading up fundraising efforts in Florida for the former mayor. Seventeen of them sent the maximum allowed, $2,300, to Clinton's presidential campaign on Dec. 24. And a dozen of them returned in March to write checks to McCain totaling $50,600.
Donors reached by phone or interviewed in person declined to explain who asked them to make the contributions.
Ibrahim Marabeh, who is listed in public records as a Rite Aid manager, at first denied that he wrote any political checks. He then said he was asked by "a local person. But I would like not to talk about it anymore." Neither he nor his wife is registered to vote, but the two donated $4,600 to Clinton and $4,600 to Giuliani in December.
At the Twilight Hookah Lounge, owned by Nadia and Shawn Abdalla, patrons smoke tobacco flavored with honey and fruit from a menu that includes the strawberry-flavored Sex on the Beach and the strong, orange-flavored Fuzzy Navel.
The Abdallas, who are not registered to vote, said in an interview that they recalled writing a check to an organization in Miami, because a person with that organization was a friend of their mother's. They said they could not remember his name.
Nader, 39, and Sahar Alhawash, 28, of Colton, Calif, who at one point ran the Avon Village Liquor store, donated a total of $18,400 to Giuliani, Clinton and McCain between December and March. About 80 people in the country made such large contributions to all three, and most were wealthy business executives, such as Donald Trump. The Alhawashes declined to comment about the donations. Abdullah Abdullah, a supervisor at several Taco Bell restaurants in the Riverside area, and his wife have donated $9,200 to McCain.
Reached at work, Abdullah said he knows little about the campaign. "I have no idea. I'll be honest with you," he said. "I'm involved in the restaurant business. My brother Faisel recommended John McCain. Whenever he makes a recommendation, we do it."
Faisal Abdullah, 49, said he helped organize all of the contributions from members of his family. When he was asked who solicited the contributions from him, he said: "Why does it matter who? I'm telling you we made the contribution. We funneled it through the channel in Florida because that's the contact we had. I was responsible for collecting it."
"Business connections", eh? I'm sure we'll here more about these connections and where their money came from in the very near future. Strangely enough, these aren't the only McCain contributors who've come up with more significant contributions than they appear to be capable of making. Employees of McCain's friends in the oil industry appear also to favor the McCain campaign with their savings accounts:
Alice Rocchio is an office manager at the New York headquarters of the Hess Corp., drives a 1993 Chevy Cavalier and lives in an apartment in Queens, N.Y., with her husband, Pasquale, an Amtrak foreman.
Despite what appears to be a middle-class lifestyle, the couple has written $61,600 in checks to John McCain's presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee, most of it within days of McCain's decision to endorse offshore oil drilling.
At a June fundraiser, the Rocchios joined top executives at Hess Corp. — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Hess, his wife, Susan, his mother, Norma Hess, and six other officials in giving a total of $313,500 to a joint McCain-RNC fundraising committee, Federal Election Commission records show.
The donations, first traced by Campaign Money Watch last week, were part of $1.2 million in oil industry contributions to McCain's Victory '08 Committee, 73 percent coming after McCain reversed his long-held opposition to offshore oil drilling. The non-partisan watchdog group said oil executives and their spouses from Colorado, Mississippi, Louisiana, California, Indiana, New Jersey and Florida also donated.
Hess, among the nation's five biggest oil companies, conducts deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as well as off the coasts of Europe, Africa and Asia.
The Rocchios donated $4,600 to McCain's campaign in February and another $57,000 at the June fundraiser.
Alice Rocchio, reached at the office, confirmed that she registered her '93 Chevy in February, but said that she "absolutely'' used her own money to make the donations.
Moments later, she asked a reporter: "Are you done with your questions?''
Apparently there was no need for subtlety here; no one would EVER question how a solidly middle-class couple found the financial wherewithal to make the kind of donation only the wealthy do, especially when they happen to be employees of a company whose executives have also made big-money donations to a campaign whose candidate has made quite favorable statements about their business interests (except for his ridiculous declaration that he would "battle big oil"...hopefully the Rocchio's missed that or they might ask for their money back.) Of course, Obama has his own critical network of "bundlers", as the NY Times reports, and they've raised big-time money for his campaign. I'm not really sure that anybody is surprised that big-money donors find a way to get their money to their preferred candidates, come hell or high water, given how lax campaign finance laws are and how desperately candidates need money to win their races. Campaign finance reform of the scale necessary to curb this problem simply doesn't exist in this country.