Politics & Government

McCain donor tied to questionable contributions in Florida

Jihan Nassar, a homemaker in Corona, Calif., is listed as a $500 donor to the campaign of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. But she insists she never gave a dime.

''I can't make any donations, financially,'' Nassar said Friday. "We never made any donations, sir. I have no idea what you are talking about.''

Nassar and her husband, Waleed, are among more than three dozen California donors listed as giving to Crist's campaign on June 19, 2006 -- donations bundled by a controversial Delray Beach defense contractor now under scrutiny for contributions to GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

On Thursday, the McCain campaign said it would return $50,000 in donations tied to businessman Harry Sargeant III, finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party and a college buddy of Crist's. Sargeant has said the California donors were solicited by a business partner, Mustafa Abu Naba'a, a Jordanian with an apartment in Miami-Dade, records show.

McCain -- a champion of campaign-finance reform in the U.S. Senate -- said he would return the donations after news articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times raised questions about their legitimacy.

In a letter to the donors, the campaign warned that foreign nationals cannot donate money to U.S. campaigns and contributors cannot be reimbursed by another donor as a way to get around contribution limits.

Some donors whose contributions are being returned by McCain's campaign were also listed as contributors to Crist on June 19, 2006.

That day, Crist received more than $25,000 in contributions from California, records show, including $500 checks from two stereo stores and two Wienerschnitzel hot-dog restaurants outside Los Angeles.

Zouhair El Srouji, a 40-year-old accountant in Wildomar, Calif., initially told a reporter on Friday that he had no memory of a $500 donation to the Florida governor.

After reviewing campaign records, however, he said he recalled that a campaign contribution was requested by his employer -- though he couldn't recall who asked him to give.

''It took a lot of convincing, but they said he was a good man and needed our help, and I guess I'm a sucker for helping good people,'' El Srouji said.

Reached briefly to talk about his just-announced Dec. 12 wedding date with fiancee Carole Rome, Crist said he wasn't familiar with the specifics and referred questions to his former campaign manager, George LeMieux. ''It's all good,'' Crist said.

Earlier in the week, he called Sargeant "a great patriot.''

LeMieux said he would review the donations highlighted by The Miami Herald.

He said every effort was made during the campaign to verify all donations and make sure they did not exceed campaign finance limits. Crist received more than 18,000 checks in the Republican primary, he said.

''With that volume of checks, we're not going to know everyone who gives money,'' LeMieux said. "I remember many a long weekend trying to look up information about donors on the Internet.''

The controversy over the donations comes at an awkward time for Crist, one of several politicians auditioning to be McCain's vice-presidential candidate.

Sargeant, a fraternity brother of Crist's at Florida State University, was one of the governor's biggest supporters in the 2006 campaign, and he has emerged in recent months as a top fundraiser for McCain as well.

Sargeant is among 63 McCain fundraisers nationwide who have bundled more than $500,000 in checks each. Donations to presidential candidates are capped at $2,300, but bundlers get around the limit by collecting checks from friends, business associates and relatives.

Sargeant also donated $30,000 of his own money to a joint McCain-GOP fund in May, records show. Before turning his attention to McCain, Sargeant also raised money for presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton.

On March 5 -- the same day President Bush received McCain at the White House as the GOP's presumptive nominee -- Sargeant hosted a fundraiser for McCain at his $8.3 million Delray Beach home.

Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, attended the affair at the waterfront home. He said McCain is ''bending over backwards'' by returning contributions.

''By giving the money back he is raising flags that weren't even there,'' Dinerstein said. "John McCain puts the ethics bar higher than anyone in national politics.''

Sargeant could not be reached for comment on Friday, and a lawyer for his company did not respond to a list of e-mailed questions.

Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, a top fundraiser for both Crist and McCain, said the reason Sargeant took the position as the state GOP's finance chairman was simple: Crist asked him to do it.

Sargeant was not involved in President Bush's campaigns, which took the practice of bundling to new heights by designating its biggest givers as ''Rangers'' and "Pioneers.''

''Harry does politics now only because his friend of 30 years asked him to take this role,'' Ballard said. "He's very much apolitical. He runs tankers and ports.''

Under Sargeant's leadership, the Republican Party of Florida raised $15 million in 2007, a record for a nonelection year. Chairman Jim Greer said he has no reason to review the checks Sargeant has delivered to the party.

''He continues to have my full support and appreciation for his service,'' Greer said. "He's very dedicated and exhibited a high degree of integrity.''

For someone at the top of the fundraising heap, Sargeant has kept a low profile. Several activists and fundraisers who have been involved in Republican politics for years said they had never met him.

But Sargeant's business has received some unwanted attention.

Sargeant is a partner with Abu Naba'a in International Oil Trading Co., a Boca Raton firm with Defense Department contracts to ship oil to the military in Iraq. Federal records show the company received $601 million in the 2007 budget year.

In June, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., head of a congressional oversight committee, sent a letter to Sargeant seeking records in a probe of alleged overcharging of the military for fuel costs.

Sargeant and Abu Naba'a have also been accused of fraud by the brother-in-law of the king of Jordan, who filed a lawsuit in West Palm Beach in April saying the pair cut him out of the Pentagon contracts after he helped them secure the deal.

The ex-partner, Mohammad Al-Saleh, said he helped the company win the blessing of the Jordanian government to ship the oil through that country to Iraq -- a requirement of the Pentagon contracts, according to the suit. Al-Saleh said Sargeant and Abu Naba'a failed to pay him at least $13 million.

In court papers, lawyers for Sargeant and Abu Naba'a denied any wrongdoing and said the suit should be moved to Jordan. Sargeant and his family also own domestic shipping and asphalt companies, records show.

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