Trial opens for men accused of funneling millions to back Hillary Clinton in 2016 presidential race

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A defense attorney for a California businessman accused of conspiring to illegally donate more than $3 million to back Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race offered a simple explanation for her client’s decision to break out his checkbook: He feared that Donald Trump’s promised ban on Muslim visitors to the U.S. would devastate his travel-oriented business.

“He believed that his contribution to Hillary Clinton’s campaign would save his business,” defense lawyer Megan Church said of Los Angeles luxury transport provider Rani El-Saadi. “His company catered to clients who were travelers from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East — the same people Mr. Trump intended to ban from the U.S. A Trump presidency posed a fatal threat to Mr. El-Saadi’s business. That’s why he donated.”

However, as the trial for El-Saadi and a co-defendant opened in federal court in Washington on Thursday, a prosecutor offered an equally simple explanation for the $150,000 El-Saadi personally ponied up to attend a Clinton fundraiser in Las Vegas in October 2016: Another, much wealthier man — digital payments magnate Andy Khawaja — secretly gave El-Saadi the money.

“This is a case about a large-scale conspiracy to funnel well in excess of $1 million into the U.S. political system — money that came from the United Arab Emirates,” prosecutor Michelle Parikh told jurors.

In reality, nothing about the case is simple. While jurors aren’t being told many of the most attention-grabbing details, what they did hear Thursday was enticing.

The man alleged to be at the heart of the scheme, Allied Wallet founder Khawaja, is reportedly a multibillionaire. The Lebanon-born American lived a lavish lifestyle, replete with private jets, luxury hotels and fancy cars. Jurors know he isn’t in the courtroom, but not exactly why. He’s been in Lithuania fighting extradition to the U.S. for more than 2 years. Judge Randy Moss has declared him a fugitive.

“Khawaja wanted very badly to gain power and influence in the U.S.,” Parikh said.

Five other men charged in the case have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors. Among them is George Nader, who worked closely with the Trump White House on Mideast issues but had a history of child pornography charges and got a 10-year sentence in a sex-abuse case in 2020.

The campaign finance indictment appears to have emerged from Nader’s cooperation with federal authorities, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller. However, Nader's credibility is so tattered that prosecutors don’t plan to call him at the current trial. The four other men who have pleaded guilty are expected to take the stand, Parikh said.

While Parikh told jurors Thursday that the millions donated to Clinton and more than $1 million the conspirators directed to Republicans after Trump won originated in the United Arab Emirates, she did not level the more explosive allegation she made in court earlier this week before the jury was picked: that the money actually originated with the UAE government.

Parikh said both the Clinton committees and the Republican ones were “unsuspecting” that the money forked over by donors with little or no prior track record of political giving actually originated with others.

Jurors in other cases have sometimes struggled to see the significance of rules about straw campaign donations unless prosecutors provide evidence akin to a quid pro quo. But Parikh said there were “good reasons” that it’s against the law to donate other people’s money under your name. “Our political system is premised on transparency,” she argued.

The prosecution’s first witness, former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser Diane Hamwi, said Khawaja hired her for $7,500 a month in the spring of 2016 to advise him on how to get closer to American politicians and to seek appointment to a part-time government post or commission related to the Mideast.

“He hired me to help him develop more relationships in the political sphere,” Hamwi said.

“I was ensuring that when he made the large contributions he was making that he was getting the most for that,” Hamwi added.

Hamwi said she explained to Khawaja the basics of U.S. campaign finance rules: that foreigners can’t donate unless they are permanent U.S. residents and that people can only donate their own money. She said Khawaja asked her how some governments, including Israel, donate massive sums to the U.S. political system. Hamwi said she replied that foreign governments can’t donate to campaigns but can fund other actors in the political system, like think tanks and lobbyists.

Khawaja leapt into political giving with gusto, Hamwi said, hosting an event at his Los Angeles home with former President Bill Clinton in June 2016 in exchange for donating or raising about $1 million for committees associated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Khawaja originally proposed soliciting money for that event from wealthy Democrats like Jeffrey Katzenberg, but Hamwi said that wasn’t going to work.

“This was going to be a small dinner and they did not have a relationship with Mr. Khawaja,” Hamwi testified. Ultimately, all the money for the Bill Clinton dinner came from Khawaja and his wife, she said.

Despite the challenges in finding donors for that event, Khawaja quickly embarked on another: a fundraising reception in Las Vegas that would feature the candidate herself, Hillary Clinton. However, Hamwi said Khawaja had either reached the legal limit for his donations or was close to it, so he couldn’t legally give enough to justify the event with the Democratic nominee.

Hamwi said she was “surprised” when Khawaja said he could get close to $1 million from people he knew in the Las Vegas area. When a handful of checks rolled in for $100,000 or more, Hamwi found it curious that so many of the donors were novices.

“The amounts that people were writing were quite large for first-time donors,” she said.

Hamwi said Hillary Clinton attended the intimate event in October 2016, giving each guest the chance to ask her a question. Within days, Clinton fundraiser Stephanie Smith asked Khawaja to come up with more money, but Hamwi sent her an email asking her to back off.

“I am asking you not to ask Andy to raise any more money,” Hamwi wrote. Asked why, Hamwi said: “Because I did not know who it would come from. … At this point, we were very close to Election Day and it was very important to know who was writing large checks.”

Hamwi said the process of gathering information about new donors is more complicated than for established ones and she was concerned they couldn’t get it all together in time.

Hamwi testified that she later found out the FBI was asking questions about the Las Vegas event and the sources of the money. Khawaja dismissed the inquries, she said, but in terms that made her uncomfortable.

“The FBI was insinuating that the money they contributed was not their money and Andy was saying that they can do whatever they want with the bonus money he gives them,” Hamwi said. “I sort of was speechless to be honest. ... What he just said did not sound kosher to me. ... He just admitted he gave them money.”

With many of the defendants, witnesses and events from the Los Angeles area, Hollywood gossip migrated into the courtroom. Jurors heard that Hamwi and Khawaja first met during a breakfast fundraiser then-President Barack Obama attended in April 2016 at the Brentwood home of “Spider-Man” actor Tobey Maguire.

On trial with El-Saadi is Las Vegas resident Mohammad Diab, a cousin of Khawaja who did work on behalf of Allied Wallet in the U.S.

Diab’s lawyer, Harland Braun, briefly suggested to the jurors that the prosecution was the product of a political vendetta against Hillary Clinton. However, moments later the defense lawyer seemed to back away from that.

During his unconventional opening statement, Braun turned and repeatedly pointed at the prosecutors, contending that they were responsible for the U.S.’s byzantine campaign finance laws and rules. “They have to work in the system these people created,” the defense attorney said.

At one point, Braun pulled a $10 bill from his pocket and waved it in front of the jury. “I offer someone $10 for testimony and I can go to jail,” the defense lawyer said before noting that many of the government’s witnesses will likely see less prison time in exchange for their testimony.

Braun also emphasized that the U.S. political system is awash in cash and that ultra-wealthy donors can legally give much more than the sums at issue in the Khawaja case.

“The best government money can buy,” he quipped.

To get convictions in the case, prosecutors have to show not only that the men were involved in making illegal donations, but that they knew they were breaking the law.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the courtroom has been reconfigured, with the 16 jurors and alternates sitting in the gallery that normally hosts the press and public. A law clerk sat in the stand near the judge typically reserved for witnesses, while the witnesses testified from the corner of the jury box. Transparent plastic shields were scattered across the room, although lawyers and the judge generally removed their masks when they speak.

A reporter was allowed to observe the opening statements in the case in person, but was denied permission to attend the witness testimony. Video and audio from the courtroom was being piped into a courtroom down the hall, although due to a technical issue Thursday, Hamwi couldn’t be seen as she testified.

Despite Khawaja’s status as a fugitive, the judge has granted his attorney a reserved seat in the courtroom.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misspelled Mohammad Diab's name.