A federal jury in Washington on Thursday acquitted one man of a conspiracy to use straw donors and pass-throughs to donate millions of dollars to political funds backing Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, but jurors may be deadlocked on the fate of another man on trial in the case.
The jury returned the not-guilty verdicts for Rani El-Saadi of Los Angeles, a travel services provider, on the third day of deliberations following a two-week trial.
Jurors indicated in a note on Thursday afternoon that they were “unable” to reach a verdict against the other defendant, Mohammad Diab of Glendale, Calif.
Prosecutors alleged that El-Saadi and Diab served as conduits for Andy Khawaja, the high-flying owner of a payment processing company, to route money into the U.S. political system during the 2016 presidential campaign.
While Khawaja reportedly became a billionaire as a result of the success of his Allied Wallet payments business, a grand jury indictment returned in 2019 said the funds directed to U.S. politics originated with a man who played a prominent role in U.S. Middle East policy and business deals for several decades, George Nader.
However, outside the presence of the jury, prosecutors said they believed that the original source of the money was actually the government of the United Arab Emirates.
The campaign finance indictment charged a total of eight men, including El-Saadi, Diab, Khawaja and Nader, who came under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of ties between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and foreign governments.
Nader 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.
Of the eight indicted in the campaign finance case, El-Saadi and Diab were the only ones to go on trial this month in U.S. District Court in Washington. Nader and four other defendants pleaded guilty in the case and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, while Khawaja was arrested in Lithuania in 2019 and has been fighting extradition to the U.S.
Judge Randy Moss, who oversaw the trial, has declared Khawaja a fugitive.
The verdicts in El-Saadi’s favor on a conspiracy charge and a straw-donor charge were returned shortly after jurors sent the judge a note asking what they should do if they could reach verdicts for one defendant but not the other.
When the jurors filed into Moss’ courtroom late Thursday, the foreman read the “not guilty” verdicts aloud for El-Saadi. He was masked like other courtroom participants, and there was no immediately visible reaction. However, he and his lead defense attorney, Justin Shur, later exchanged handshakes with the prosecutors. Shur also clasped El-Saadi’s shoulder to congratulate him.
Moss notified El-Saadi that all restrictions of his pretrial release were lifted and he was free to go.
El-Saadi also exchanged an embrace with the other defendant, Diab, who will have to return for further proceedings.
Outside the courtroom, El-Saadi seemed to be tearing up as he texted others with the news.
Just after the verdicts were read, Moss read a standard charge to the jury to continue to try to reach verdicts on the three felony charges Diab faces. Moss said he was ready to send the jury home for the day, but the foreman said jurors wished to stay late to deliberate further. Jurors then huddled for almost an hour and a half before heading home just before 6:30 p.m. A fourth day of deliberations is expected on Friday.
While the indictment put the amount the men sought to send to pro-Clinton committees at more than $3.5 million, in front of the jury prosecutors made a more modest claim during opening statements.
“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.
After Trump’s victory in 2016, the conspiracy shifted to direct some funds to Republicans, while still aiding Democrats, according to prosecutors. The indictment in the case lists $750,000 in donations to the Republican National Committee in 2017, as well as $225,000 to the GOP’s Protect the House committee and $337,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee the following year. Khawaja also gave $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee and got inaugural tickets in return, the indictment alleges.
One of the charges the jury is still deliberating on against Diab stems from the $225,000 donation he made to the committee backing House GOP candidates in 2018.
Prosecutors say the campaigns were not aware of the straw-donor arrangement or that the funds originated abroad.
During the trial, El-Saadi’s attorneys insisted that the $150,000 he donated to a Clinton fundraising committee in September 2016 was a genuine donation motivated by their client’s fears that Trump’s promised ban on Muslim visitors to the U.S. would devastate El-Saadi’s services to high-end travelers passing through Southern Califonia.
“He believed that his contribution to Hillary Clinton’s campaign would save his business,” defense lawyer Megan Church said in her opening statement. “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.”
Diab’s lawyer, Harland Braun, said his client is Khawaja’s cousin and served as the chief operating officer of Allied Wallet. Braun said Diab was unfamiliar with campaign finance laws.
In opening statements, Braun also 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.
Braun 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. In fact, there really is no limit on political donations in the U.S, the attorney said.
“The best government money can buy,” Braun quipped.
The prosecution’s first witness, Diane Hamwi, a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser, 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.”
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
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 that then-President Barack Obama attended in April 2016 at the Brentwood home of “Spider-Man” actor Tobey Maguire.