Imaad Zuberi hobnobbed for two decades among America's political elite, raising millions for Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton, texting with kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers and jet-setting with Republican senators like Lindsey Graham and John McCain.
Then Zuberi resisted pressure to cooperate in the investigation of then-President Donald Trump's inauguration committee, and the California millionaire's world came crashing down. Late last year, he pleaded guilty to what federal prosecutors said was a "mercenary" scheme to funnel large sums of foreign money into U.S. campaign coffers so Zuberi could gain political influence and build his global business empire.
When Zuberi was sentenced last month to 12 years in prison and more than $18 million in fines — one of the harshest penalties ever meted out for a donor fraud case — it seemed like an open-and-shut case of political corruption. To the news media, it was a made-for-TV tale of greed and graft felling a man whose charity and good nature otherwise endeared him to many from Hollywood to Washington.
But back in the nation's capital, the U.S. government harbored a deep secret about Zuberi, a Pakistani-American who ran a highly successful venture capital firm with reach across the globe.
Just the News has confirmed from multiple current and former U.S. officials that Zuberi enjoyed a long and complex relationship with U.S. intelligence. His early help to the Drug Enforcement Administration with illegal drug trade and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department in the war on Islamic terrorism in the early 2000s eventually elevated him to becoming a valuable source inside Washington's security and spy establishment for much of the last two decades, the officials said. They declined to be more specific.
The first hint of that secret emerged recently when U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips ordered the unsealing of court documents, in which the four-letter acronym "CIPA" unexpectedly appeared, with little or no explanation.
CIPA stands for the Classified Information Protection Act, a law that protects the intelligence operations of the United States and shields the release of sensitive information. It's rare for CIPA to show up in a normal criminal case, let alone one involving political donations. And it signaled that Zuberi may have been much more than just a fundraising, hobnobbing global businessman. Zuberi's account of his intelligence work is contained in one of the CIPA filings mentioned in the court case.
Then last week, former top CIA lawyer Robert J. Eatinger Jr. filed notice in court that he is joining Zuberi's legal team as he contests his harsh sentence in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Eatinger, who served as the longtime CIA deputy counsel and was CIA acting general counsel under President Obama, is a national security law expert. He did not return calls to his office.
But another of Zuberi's lawyers, David Warrington, told Just the News on Tuesday he believes Zuberi's new appeal will bring to light information about his client's relationship with the U.S. government.
"It's obvious from the public docket, there has been significant government participation in this case, and hopefully through the appeals process more of the actual facts will come to light," Warrington said. "But as of this point, I am unable to comment further about the government's involvement and what Imaad did for this country "
The implications of Zuberi's national security work have far-reaching implications. It means he committed some of the criminal offenses he pleaded guilty to while assisting the U.S. government. It also means he was raising money for Clinton, Biden, Obama, the Trump inauguration and members of Congress while having a relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies, raising possible questions of separation of powers. And it means the criminal case inevitably interrupted the government's ability to continue using Zuberi on intelligence matters.
Photo gallery of Zuberi meeting with major Democrats and Republicans.
By all accounts, Zuberi was well-regarded inside the security agencies, providing significant help with both human and signal intelligence dating to 2000. Sometimes he volunteered information gleaned from his many global trips. Other times, he was tasked with specific activities. He never was paid, save for some expense reimbursements. But he was on speed dial on the encrypted message software via which U.S. security agencies frequently communicate with sensitive sources, according to current and former officials interviewed by Just the News.
That valuable assistance, however, was suddenly put in jeopardy in early 2017, when federal prosecutors in Los Angeles and New York began investigating his financial activities, specifically nearly $1 million in donations he made to Trump's inauguration committee after years of Democratic fundraising.
Even as the FBI and prosecutors dug deep into Zuberi's activities, his intelligence community work persisted — a signal that his case might eventually be settled, according to interviews and documents.
Records reviewed by Just the News show Zuberi's lawyers engaged in plea discussions with federal prosecutors that would let him off with a relatively modest $1 million fine and no prison time. All he had to do was cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russia-Trump collusion and deliver evidence against the president, his inner circle and certain senators and congressman.
There was just one problem: Zuberi could not deliver the story prosecutors wanted. He did not know of any foreign collusion connected to the inaugural committee. He told prosecutors the money he used for the donations was his own. (The final criminal charges did not even allege his donation to the Trump campaign came from foreign sources.)
The Justice Department quickly turned on Zuberi, throwing the book at him with threatened charges ranging from tax evasion to illegal lobbying for Sri Lanka to obstruction of justice over the destruction of some of his emails. The legal assault forced the intelligence community to put their work with Zuberi on pause in late 2019, just months after bringing him to Washington for high-level meetings.
Prosecutors' relentless pursuit of Trump-Russia collusion not only sidelined a valuable national security asset, it complicated Zuberi's efforts to defend himself.
For instance, the business dealings in Sri Lanka that prosecutors alleged amounted to illegal foreign lobbying also involved some of Zuberi’s intelligence community contacts. The deletion of the emails was actually done by a U.S. intelligence community "scrub team" worried that his secret work might fall into the wrong hands. And some of his dealings with world and American leaders — including his fundraising and political hobnobbing for members of Congress — were undertaken with the government's knowledge and even encouragement, according to interviews.
Major figures in the intelligence community — including a prominent retired government lawyer, a retired spy and law enforcement officials — tried to aid Zuberi's defense team, which constructed a 78-page secret filing to the trial judge laying out his entire history with U.S. intelligence and security agencies and some of the complicating issues. It was that filing that is cryptically referenced in the recent court filing as being protected by CIPA.
Prosecutors would not relent, even threatening to charge Zuberi's wife for signing one of his errant tax returns. Late last year, he agreed to plead guilty, and last month he was sentenced to prison, although he has not yet reported to serve his term as his appeal has begun.
With the CIPA filings still sealed from public view, one of the few hints of Zuberi's intelligence connections comes in the form of letters from prominent officials pleading for leniency in his case.
One such character reference came from former Assistant Los Angeles County Sheriff R. Doyle Campbell. Zuberi had provided "strong support for this community and this nation," Campbell wrote to the judge.
"I found Imaad to be a very valuable asset to the law enforcement community and to the country," Campbell wrote, clearly signaling Zuberi's security work extended far beyond Los Angeles.
In Washington, current and former intelligence officials said they ultimately deferred to the Justice Department on the prosecution and declined to further describe Zuberi's assistance, except to say it came to an abrupt halt as the criminal case advanced.