WASHINGTON — Democrats pounced on reports Wednesday that a major fundraiser for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Republican presidential candidate John McCain had tapped suspiciously apolitical Californians of modest means for thousands of dollars in campaign contributions over the past two years.
Harry Sar-geant III, an oil company executive and former fraternity brother of Crist, is at the center of questions about "straw donors" used to circumvent federal limits on contributions.
It "looks like some of these donors were not on the up and up, and they may have been reimbursed, they may have been straw donors," said Mike Gehrke, director of research for the Democratic National Committee.
Responding to an article in the Washington Post, Democratic Party officials suggested that Sargeant, who lives in Gulf Stream in Palm Beach County, may have improperly funneled money to McCain earlier this year and to Crist during his 2006 race for governor.
Sargeant denied wrongdoing on Wednesday and said he didn't know the donors personally. They were asked to contribute by his far-flung network of business associates.
"I make it clear that these people have to have the means and willingness to write the check, and they know that," Sargeant told the St. Petersburg Times.
The Post reported Wednesday that Sargeant tapped a seemingly random assortment of Southern Californians for checks for Crist and McCain, as well as for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the one-time favorite for the Democratic nomination, and former Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani.
All told, the Post reported, Sargeant bundled more than $144,000, largely from donors who had never given in a presidential race before. Many were of moderate means and were otherwise unaffiliated with politics, and some were not registered to vote, the Post said.
In a conference call with reporters, Gehrke said the DNC wasn't making "any direct allegations," but "it is a pretty odd pattern."
A review by the Post of state and federal campaign finance records found Sargeant's network of these donors was tapped four times: About 50 of them donated $500 each to Crist's campaign on June 19, 2006; 13 of them sent a combined $29,200 to Giuliani's campaign on Dec. 13, 2007; 17 of them sent the maximum $2,300 to Clinton's campaign on Dec. 24; and on March 12, about a dozen wrote checks to McCain totaling $50,600.
Sargeant told the Times on Wednesday that his extensive bundling is related to his contacting associates through his firm, International Oil Trading Co., who in turn contacted others. The firm helps supply fuel to the U.S. military in the Middle East.
"I do have a lot of friends and partners in that part of the world, and some of them have extended families and friends who are U.S. citizens," Sargeant said. "I have Venezuelan-American partners. I have Nigerian-American partners. I reached out to my friends and said, 'Can you gather me up some checks?' "
The McCain campaign said Wednesday that it was looking into the donations that Sargeant bundled and delivered in March. "We certainly follow campaign finance law, and whenever there's flags raised, we'll look into it," spokesman Brian Rogers said.
Sargeant, 50, said he met McCain in January, not long before the Republican primary, through Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist and chairman of McCain's Florida campaign.
Sargeant is a Republican, but he also has helped Democrats, including U.S. Reps. Ron Klein and Robert Wexler, both of the Boca Raton area. "I look at candidates as individuals. I don't look at them as Republicans or Democrats," he said.
But he has been of special help to Crist, with his money, private jet and far-flung connections.
He and the governor go back a long way — to the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where both went to college. After the Marines, Sargeant became a captain of industry at Sargeant Marine, the family shipping company founded in Boca Raton in 1983.
"He's a great patriot. I love him," Crist said Wednesday.
It was Sargeant who introduced Crist to King Abdullah II of Jordan in June 2007 when the governor went on his first overseas trade and goodwill mission to the Middle East. The king's brother-in-law is one of Sargeant's business partners.
Crist frequently flew on Sargeant's corporate jet to attend fundraisers and campaign appearances in his race for governor.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.