Politics & Government

GOP leans on rainmaker who courts controversy on two continents

As a top fundraiser for the Republican Party under President Donald Trump, investment manager Elliott Broidy has had a seat at some of the most exclusive GOP money bashes at the Trump International Hotel and Mar-a-Lago.

It might seem like a pinnacle moment in the career of a big-money harvester. Broidy’s success, however, hasn’t followed a typical trajectory: In 2012, he was convicted in a New York “pay to play” pension scandal that cost him millions and forced him to the political sidelines. `

It was a steep fall. The Los Angeles-based Broidy had earlier done a stint as finance chair of the Republican National Committee and had been a top fundraiser for GOP presidential candidates in 2004 and 2008.

It’s been an equally sharp rise back to the top echelons of Republican financing, too. In 2016, just four years after his conviction, Broidy, chairman of Broidy Capital Management, played a major role in providing key backing to several contenders for the nomination, then scored big donors for Trump in the fall campaign against Hillary Clinton.

But Broidy’s comeback isn’t an altogether feel-good story.

A McClatchy investigation shows that Broidy, who has re-emerged as a valuable deputy RNC finance chair, is linked to controversial figures, at home and abroad, with their own recent legal troubles.

A small defense contractor Broidy owns opened an office last year in Romania just months after Broidy helped introduce a top Romanian politician facing corruption charges there to Trump and reportedly just partnered with a large Romanian defense firm. At home, the firm has seen a big spike in business since Trump took office – and after it lobbied the office of Vice President Mike Pence.

And a few years before Trump took office, Broidy, a longtime board member of the hawkish Republican Jewish Coalition, headed up a national security-focused nonprofit group set up - and partially funded - by two movie producers who have been charged by federal prosecutors with defrauding investors of millions. Despite a showy debut, the nonprofit soon vanished from the scene, never filing required tax forms.

All of which raises a key question for Republicans planning to lean on him for funds in the 2018 and 2020 elections: Can Elliott Broidy be counted on to drum up dollars without also bringing controversy or embarrassment?

Pension problems

Broidy, 60, worked hard to establish his fundraising bona fides.

A decade ago, Broidy led the RNC’s national finance team and was one of the top bundlers for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, four years after he’d been dubbed a “Ranger” for his fundraising success on behalf of George W. Bush’s re-election committee.

He was rewarded with prestigious appointments to the board of the Kennedy Center and the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

But that all came to an end in 2009, after Broidy pleaded guilty in New York for his role in a pension pay-to-play scheme, admitting he had doled out nearly $1 million in favors to New York state pension officials in return for their $250 million investment in Markstone Capital, the Israel-focused investment fund he co-founded.

He and his firm each paid $18 million in fines in New York, and state and federal investigations involving Markstone led to convictions of pension officials in New York and California.

The charges against Broidy were downgraded in 2012 to a misdemeanor and he avoided prison time — but he had to leave his company and a number of politicians returned his donations.

By 2015, though, with another presidential election nearing, Broidy’s fundraising chops were in demand again; his past troubles seemed to fade away as GOP candidates scrambled for rainmakers.

Broidy first backed Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), co-hosting a March 2015 fundraiser for Graham’s exploratory presidential campaign after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress. When Graham’s bid ended, Broidy shifted to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Then Rubio dropped out and Broidy moved on to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, co-hosting a last-ditch April 2016 New York fundraiser weeks before Cruz left the race.

Finally, in May 2016, Broidy signed on with the Trump Victory Committee, helping bring in $108 million for Trump and the RNC.

RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel praised Broidy’s support of the party. “Elliott has devoted an enormous amount of his time and resources to help the Republican Party grow,” she said in an interview.

Romanian rendezvous

One week before Trump’s inauguration — for which he had been a high-level fundraiser — Broidy invited two powerful but controversial Romanian politicians to be his guests at several exclusive inaugural events: Liviu Dragnea, head of the Social Democratic Party and speaker of the lower house in Parliament, and then-Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu. While Grindeanu has the title, Dragnea is “the de-facto head of the government,” said Caterina Preda, a political science professor at the University of Bucharest.

The pair met Trump, with Broidy at the table. As Dragnea recounted on Facebook, Trump responded enthusiastically to his call for stronger ties between Romania and the United States.

“We will make it happen! Romania is important for us!” Trump said, according to Dragnea’s Facebook post.

Dragnea Facebook Post
Liviu Dragnea’s Facebook post documenting his meeting with President Donald Trump

Dragnea might be prime minister himself, except that he was convicted of vote-rigging in a 2012 referendum to impeach the country’s then-president and thus is ineligible.

Even as he shook Trump’s hand, Dragnea was scheduled to go on trial just weeks later for abuse of office. He is currently facing another set of corruption charges in Romania, with prosecutors alleging that he and an “organized criminal group” of bureaucrats and businessmen skimmed off more than $23 million from European Union contracts.

Shortly after meeting Trump, Grindeanu was removed from office after street protests over his move to decriminalize the theft of less than about $50,000 in government funds.

Dragnea’s efforts to ingratiate himself with politicians in the United States are part and parcel of his campaign to beat the corruption charges, said one prominent Romanian expert who requested anonymity because of ongoing investigations in Bucharest.

“What Dragnea wants more than anything is for the U.S. to stay out of his drawers,” the expert said. “He believes the U.S. is behind all his prosecutions.”

Broidy’s invitation to the pair of politicians raises questions, said Norm Eisen, the former ambassador to the Czech Republic and Obama administration ethics czar.

“It strikes me that the most dangerous place for a fundraiser to be is in and around foreign government officials and dignitaries,” Eisen said of Broidy’s invitation.

Intelligence influence

On Broidy’s part, inviting the Romanians to the inauguration appears to have been one facet of a multi-pronged effort to win more business at home and abroad for a defense contractor, Circinus, LLC, he had quietly acquired in 2015.

The small, Virginia-based firm specializes in providing high-tech intelligence services to different branches of the military.

The acquisition was part of Broidy’s broader focus on counterterrorism, said his spokesman Ron Bonjean.

“Since 9/11, Elliott Broidy has been ardent supporter of activities that would help the United States with counter-terrorism, including supporting candidates that would be the right people to protect the U.S. and its citizens from terrorists,” Bonjean said.

Broidy and Bonjean declined to answer specific questions about Broidy’s dealings for this story.

In 2014, before Broidy acquired it, Circinus had won a spot as an approved contractor on a $7.2 billion contract to provide support for the Army’s Intelligence and National Security Command, or INSCOM.

But that’s no guarantee of high-dollar orders from the government; it simply makes the firm eligible to further compete.

Broidy was well-positioned, though, to benefit when the new president called for a “historic” increase in defense spending. Circinus, which recently listed its annual revenue at $4.6 million, hired its first federal lobbyist in July 2017, paying $80,000 to Fidelis Government — a firm partnered with Vice President Mike Pence’s former chief of staff — to lobby Pence’s office on winning government contracts.

And Broidy also upped his political giving in 2017 — donating more than $500,000 to political candidates and committees, according to federal records, with more than half of it going to the RNC. His overall total was three times more than he'd given in any previous year, when accounting for inflation.

In August and September 2017, Circinus’s fortunes seemed to improve: It won an order from the Army’s Intelligence and National Security Command worth up to $17 million — the largest single order the firm has won — and a sole-source contract from the Defense Security Service worth up to $700,000, according to federal contracting data.

Circinus also was scouting opportunities abroad, though. In May, 2017 — one month after Broidy became the RNC’s deputy finance chair — Circinus registered an offshoot in Romania, another country that has vowed to increase its military spending.

Circinus Romania Screenshot
Screenshot of Circinus Defense SRL Romanian registration Romanian National Trade Register Office

That’s where Broidy’s inauguration guest, Dragnea, plays a key role, said the prominent Romania expert.

“You couldn’t get a contract in Romania without Dragnea’s approval,” the expert said.

Broidy reportedly also met with Romania’s defense minister, Mihai Fifor, during Fifor’s September visit to the US, and the company’s CEO, Alan Blaine Stone, attended a Bucharest reception in October with visiting U.S. lawmakers and Romanian officials.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a Circinus board member, said he has counseled Broidy and another Circinus executive, Stan Manning, to tread carefully in the country because of its reputation.

“I’m very much aware that in Romania there have been some instances that at least on the surface look corrupt,” Kerrey said. “My advice to Stan and Elliott has been to not push too hard.”

Circinus has so far partnered with a national research institute in Romania to try to win a contract, though it’s unclear whether that bid – or any others – have yet been successful.

(Update Feb. 8: Following McClatchy's reporting, Romanian news site Hotnews reported that Broidy's company, Circinus, LLC signed an agreement earlier this month with with Romarm, a state-owned defense company in Romania.

While the details of the agreement are not known, it is believed that the Circinus and Romarm are trying to win a mulitfaceted contact that has communication, computer and intelliigence components and is valued at more than $200 million, according to Hotnews. The agreement was signed in the presence of U.S. Ambassador Hans Klemm, the Romanian Minster of Economy, Danut Andrusca, and Fifor -- with whom Broidy reportedly met in Washington. The event was not widely publicized, as is the precedent for similar events, Hotnews reported.)

Big screen schemes

While Circinus’ fortunes seem to be looking up in the Trump era, an earlier Broidy-led national security venture had less success, despite a star-studded launch in 2013 that featured a roundtable discussion with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and then- Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

“Great minds and strong leaders are required for such an important discussion,” Broidy said at the event hosted by his new Bipartisan Coalition for American Security.

Broidy was chairman of the nonprofit’s advisory board, with former Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) as its co-chairs.

Oddly, the nonprofit was set up by two film producers, Steven J. Brown and James David Williams. They knew Broidy because they had co-produced a movie with them, called Snake & Mongoose, about drag-racing. Williams also touted Broidy as the adviser to two film distribution funds he ran — Panda Fund and Panda Media Partners II — in two press releases.

“Elliott Broidy inspired such confidence from Wall Street investors that we immediately opened Panda Media Partners II,” Williams said in the second release, announcing a newly-created fund.

(Steven Brown, incidentally, co-owns several businesses with Rick Gates, a former aide to onetime Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort and Gates both face fraud and money laundering charges as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.)

The Bipartisan Coalition for American Security appears to have ceased operating within a few months of the July 2013 event in Washington. It never filed required tax forms and might have been entirely forgotten had it not shown up as a named party in a 2014 lawsuit lodged by a reality TV hunting star.

In the suit, Bill Busbice — host of Wildgame Nation until he was suspended last summer for poaching an elk — accused Brown and Williams, as well as GOP fundraiser Jerry Seppala, of misappropriating more than $10 million Busbice invested with them for several film productions. He alleged that his money had instead been used for the producer’s personal expenses, including Williams’ Jaguar and initial payments on his multi-million dollar house.

Another $100,000 had been directed to the Bipartisan Coalition for American Security, Busbice claims.

The lawsuit also questioned whether Panda Media Fund, supposedly advised by Broidy, even existed. Busbice introduced a letter written to Williams by lawyers representing the producers of the film Left Behind, which starred Nicolas Cage.

“Despite our best efforts, we cannot find any information on ‘Panda’ (whatever its actual name may be and to the extent that it actually exists),” the letter read.

Broidy was not accused of any wrongdoing. But a federal judge ultimately ruled in Busbice’s favor against Brown, Williams and Seppala in February 2016, saying they collectively owed him $10.5 million. Four months later, the three defendants were charged by federal prosecutors in New York with fraud and money laundering; Busbice is one of nine victims listed in that case. So far, Williams and Seppala have pleaded guilty and Williams appears to be cooperating with prosecutors, while Brown awaits trial.

Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent