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Donations for McCain and Crist bundled far from Florida

Ibrahim A. Marabeh has never been to Florida and has "absolutely" no interest in Florida politics.

But the district manager for Rite Aid in the Temecula area of California was among three dozen in a California Muslim community who contributed $500 each to Gov. Charlie Crist's 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

Marabeh's contribution was among some $20,000 raised on June 19, 2006, by a business relation of Harry Sargeant III, an oil company executive, a formal naval officer and longtime friend and fundraiser for Crist.

Some of these same donors were at the heart of questions raised earlier this month about Sargeant's bundling work for GOP presidential candidate John McCain. No one alleges the donors were reimbursed, which would be illegal, but some wondered why a group of modest-income Californians who aren't avid voters would contribute the maximum to McCain's campaign.

That question becomes even sharper when you consider that those same people contributed to Crist in his 2006 campaign for governor of Florida.

"A friend of ours came to us and suggested we make a contribution and we did," Marabeh said. "We're trying to be political contributors."

The Sargeant example demonstrates the power and perils of fundraiser bundling, where a single person exhausts his or her network of friends and business associates to arrange a multitude of donations. On the one hand, big money is raised in a hurry; on the other, the campaign is getting money second-, third- or fourth-hand. They don't know the contributors, and the contributors may not know them.

Crist sidestepped questions about the contributions bundled by Sargeant but said, generally, he's grateful when anyone contributes to his campaign, "whether it's a check or a vote."

"People give because they want to give, or they like the person who maybe asked them to," Crist said. "It's up to their heart and mind to make that decision as an individual."

Bundling has always been a mainstay of Florida political campaigns, veteran fundraisers say.

"The challenge is: How do you find millions of millions of dollars? How do you find the resources to compete?" asked Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, who raised money and advised Crist during the election. "You've got to find more and more people to get involved in the process and aggressively seek out new givers. It's no fun for anybody."

Bundled money helped Crist raise a record-breaking $19-million in direct contributions. Among the others:

• At least 30 companies owned by Ken Underwood of Ponte Vedra Beach gave the maximum $500 to Crist, for a total of $15,000, and half of the checks were written within days of the firms' creation. Underwood holds a state contract to publish driver safety handbooks.

•Crist received some $6,500 from Miami companies owned by Sergio Pino, a prominent builder and developer and supporter of Republican candidates. Pino was the subject of a federal public corruption investigation along with Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz.

Massie Ritsch of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that monitors campaign contributions, said candidates can't raise "astronomical sums" without bundlers. Often the public learns very little about bundlers, he added.

"We know much more about people who donate $250 than we do about those who raise $250,000," Ritsch said.

Coincidentally, over two days that overlapped with Sargeant's bundling, Crist's campaign also received $4,000 from companies and executives who worked for what was then the nation's largest subprime lender, Ameriquest Mortgage Co. In 2006, Ameriquest contributed to a number of different state elections with an eye toward changing state lending laws. The company had also just settled a multistate lawsuit, agreeing to pay $325-million after complaints the company cheated customers by inflating appraisals, falsifying income statements and charging unjustified fees.

As Florida's attorney general, Crist had trumpeted the "landmark agreement." Ameriquest no longer lends money and has since been purchased by Citigroup.

"Gov. Crist received support from individuals who worked for national corporations with operations in many states, including Florida, and from others because he was seen as a leader in national policy and an up-and-coming political figure," said Sacramento, Calif., lobbyist Jeff Miller, a former Ameriquest lobbyist who collected such checks.

Tallahassee consultant George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff and campaign manager, said there's nothing wrong with bundling contributions, even when it sweeps in donations from troubled businesses or the money of out-of-staters with no apparent interest in the election.

He sees no problems with either the Ameriquest contributions or the ones collected by Sargeant's business associate Jordanian Mustafa Abu Naba.

Both LeMieux and Ballard suggested that had the Sargeant-related contributions come from people with names like "Smith" or "Jones," rather than through a Sargeant associate named Mustafa Abu Naba the media wouldn't be as interested.

Crist said he didn't know about Sargeant's associate. When asked about Naba's connection to his 2006 campaign, Crist said: "Whatever it was, I don't know."

Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report.

Donations for McCain and Crist bundled far from Florida 08/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 3:55pm]
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