Donald Trump’s inauguration received tens of thousands of dollars from shell companies that masked the involvement of a foreign contributor or others with foreign ties.
The Guardian has identified the creators of three obscure firms that contributed money to Trump’s inaugural committee, which collected a record $107m as he entered the White House in 2017.
The three companies each gave $25,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund. At least one of the contributions was made for a foreign national who appears ineligible to make political donations in the US.
A spokesman for Thomas Barrack, the chairman of Trump’s inauguration committee, declined to comment. The contributors denied wrongdoing.
Federal prosecutors in New York and the attorney generals of New Jersey and Washington DC have in recent weeks issued subpoenas to the committee, demanding records and information on its contributors and spending.
US election law prohibits non-resident foreigners from contributing to political campaigns, including inaugurations. Donors or campaigns who “knowingly and willfully” breach this rule may be fined or prosecuted.
One of the $25,000 donations to Trump’s inauguration was made through a Delaware shell company for a wealthy Indian financier based in London, who appears to not hold US citizenship or residency.
Another was made by a company formed in Georgia by a lobbyist with connections to the Taiwanese government. His wife said the firm was funded by Chinese investors. One of their daughters was later given an internship in Trump’s White House, which they said was unrelated to the donation.
A third $25,000 contribution was made through a company formed anonymously in New York by an Israeli real estate developer who has helped other foreign developers with legal issues in the US. The Israeli developer said he held US residency, commonly known as a “green card”, which permitted him to contribute legally.
Ann Ravel, a former commissioner at the federal election commission (FEC), said the use of anonymous companies was the biggest problem for authorities trying to ensure transparency and legality in political donations.
“We need stronger regulation,” said Ravel. “But our campaign finance system is structured to not let us find out who is behind these contributions.”
Authorities including Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US election, are looking into issues around foreign money in American politics and possible attempts to buy influence with Trump’s administration.
A Washington-based lobbyist, Sam Patten, admitted last year that he illegally funnelled $50,000 to Trump’s inauguration from a Ukrainian oligarch. Patten, a former colleague of the convicted ex-Trump aide Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and failing to register as a foreign agent.
Indian real estate investor
One $25,000 contribution to Trump’s inaugural fund came from a shell company tied to Cyrus Vandrevala, a Mumbai-born financier based in London. Vandrevala has said he funds property developments in India, where Trump owns luxury towers.
Vandrevala’s father-in-law, Niranjan Hiranandani, is one of the wealthiest figures in Indian real estate. He currently serves as president of an influential real estate industry lobby group in the country.
In an interview published days after Trump’s inauguration, Hiranandani said he hoped the new president would not hinder India’s real estate industry by restricting US visas. He suggested it was unlikely Trump would “want to do something that can have a negative impact on his ongoing projects in India”.
Vandrevala, 46, has an Indian passport and declares his nationality as Indian, according to business records obtained from authorities in Delhi. A source familiar with his arrangements said he did not hold US citizenship or a “green card”.
The contribution appears to have paid for two VIP tickets to Trump’s inauguration. He and his wife, Priya, attended the event in Washington and also enjoyed a “private breakfast” with Trump, according to an article in the UK’s Asian Lite newspaper, which was written by a veteran Indian reporter who knows the Vandrevalas.
Another British-Asian newspaper, Eastern Eye, reported Vandrevala was “friendly with Trump’s daughter Ivanka”. Editors did not respond to questions about the source of that information. The White House did not respond to an inquiry.
The link between the contribution and Vandrevala is hidden in the public record. FEC filings list a $25,000 donation from a limited liability company (LLC) calling itself Sierra Vista. Its stated address is a suburban office park in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
Vandrevala’s US investment company, Intrepid Capital Partners, has an office at the same complex in Wayne. Separately, an LLC named Sierra Vista 1 has also cited the office park as its address in business records.
Sierra Vista 1 was formed in Delaware, a state renowned for its low-tax and high-secrecy regime, in which companies are not required to disclose the names of officers, directors or owners.
The only person named in paperwork filed to Delaware when Sierra Vista 1 was set up in 2014 was John Teaford, a businessman who has worked on several Vandrevala ventures since the 1990s.
An executive at Intrepid Capital Partners, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said Sierra Vista 1 was an investment vehicle funded with Vandrevala’s money.
Vandrevala did not respond to emails and messages left at his office in London. Reached by telephone and asked whether he handled Sierra Vista’s payment to the inauguration for Vandrevala, Teaford said: “I probably did.”
Intrepid Capital Partners has a property arm, ICP Real Estate, which was created to finance developments in India. It claimed to be amassing a $7bn investment fund for building homes and has targeted the cities of Mumbai and Pune, both of which are home to Trump-branded towers.
Donald Trump Jr, the president’s eldest son, has described India as “the biggest push for our organisation”. The Trump company lists four Indian developments in its portfolio. A visit to the country last year by Trump Jr incurred almost $98,000 in publicly funded security costs.
Lobbyist with Taiwan ties
Two months before election day in 2016, a new shell company was registered in Georgia. The company, Jan Castle LLC, was formed by a man named David Sean, who paid the $100 fee and signed the simple one-page form required by the state.
Sean listed his office address as a numbered “suite” on a street that runs past a country club in Sandy Springs, one of the country’s wealthiest suburbs.
The state’s paperwork said explicitly that a physical address was required – a mailbox was not acceptable. But Sean’s address was, in fact, a mailbox inside a shipping store on a strip mall. Sean, a Taiwanese-American businessman, is based more than 2,000 miles away in southern California and is also known as Pong Hsiang.
Shortly before Christmas in 2016, Jan Castle LLC contributed $25,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund.
Sean, 59, said he was a US citizen. He declined to discuss the activity of Jan Castle or the status of any other people involved in the company, and the Guardian was unable to locate records on either.
But Sean’s wife, Joann, said in a brief telephone interview in late January that Sean created Jan Castle for three Chinese investors. Sean later denied his wife had said this. The company’s original filing to Georgia identified someone named Jianning He as its “organizer”, but gave only the same mailbox address as contact information.
Sean rejected requests over several weeks to discuss the contribution to Trump’s inauguration. Eventually he agreed to a meeting in person, but then changed his mind. Finally, in a series of text messages, Sean said: “I refuse to collude with Chinese communists and insist [on] investment with no condition attached.”
He went on to say: “My company objective is to take back stolen trillion dollar from communist China and put into manufacturing sector in United States. And I will work hard to achieve this mission objective til the day I am perished from the earth.”
Sean, who describes himself as an enthusiastic Trump supporter, also provided copies of complaint letters he said he had sent to the FBI, the CIA, the FEC and the IRS, requesting that each agency investigate the author of this article.
One of Sean’s daughters carried out a White House internship last year. She posted photographs to social media, including one of her class of interns posing with Trump. Sean said the internship had no link to the contribution.
During the 1990s, Sean worked in Taiwan as a consultant for the Hsinchu Science Park, according to his résumé. The park was developed by the Taiwanese ministry of science and technology from the 1980s as its answer to Silicon Valley.
Later, according to the résumé, Sean became a “US federal government relations consultant”. Records filed to Congress say that from 2012-14, he registered as a lobbyist in Washington, representing his own financial advisory firm.
In some lobbying filings, Sean registered jointly with an associate named Johnny Lu, who was said to be an “international trade consultant”.
Lu, who is also known as Lu Zhongying, is an adviser to Taiwan’s overseas community affairs council, according to a Taiwanese government spokeswoman in California. Lu did not respond to messages left with his family. A cellphone registered in his name did not accept incoming calls.
The pair told an ethics watchdog they were lobbying on issues such as international trade and foreign investment in the US. They reported lobbying the White House, Congress, and government agencies including the bureau of export administration and the federal trade commission. They did not list any foreign clients.
Records obtained from state authorities across the US show Sean has used at least 10 mailboxes around California, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Wyoming to open many other companies over the past two decades. The purpose of some of the companies was unclear. One named Johnny Lu as president.
In 2015, Sean created a company named Global Prosperity Foundation Corp from the mailbox near Atlanta. He told regulators it would “facilitate communication with US major trading partner’s trading organizations and promote the investment advantages of United States” [sic]. It was closed shortly before the donation to Trump’s inaugural fund was made.
Israeli with international links
Another $25,000 came into Trump’s inaugural fund three days before the president’s swearing-in from a company named New York State Property Management Corporation. The company gave as its address a house in the Long Island town of Hewlett, close to John F Kennedy airport.
A company with that name is registered with New York authorities at a small office building elsewhere in the region. The Guardian traced the firm back to Elon Lebouvich, an Israeli businessman in his mid-40s, who is involved in New York real estate.
According to court records, Lebouvich has also gone by other names, including “Allen Lebo”, and has served as a representative for a family of wealthy Moroccan investors in US legal disputes. A member of the family declined to discuss their relationship.
Lebouvich is currently developing a $5m retail property in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, according to sources familiar with his work. According to city records, the building is owned by an LLC controlled by the 74-year-old mother of Lebouvich’s attorney. The attorney and his mother declined to comment.
In a brief telephone interview, Lebouvich said his $25,000 contribution paid for two tickets to the inauguration for “me and somebody else”. He would not say who used the second ticket. When asked if he was entitled to contribute, he said: “I don’t have the time to talk about it” and ended the call.
In a subsequent email, Lebouvich said he had held permanent US residency for about five years, which would mean he was entitled to contribute. He declined to discuss the contribution and threatened legal action.
The FEC has seemed unwilling to actively guard against foreign contributions in US politics. In 2017, two dissenting commissioners said the FEC had failed to properly investigate a complaint alleging foreigners donated $55,000 through LLCs to a campaign group supporting a congressman.
The commission is understaffed. All four current commissioners have served well beyond their six-year term limits. For the past year, the FEC has operated with four commissioners instead of six because Trump has not nominated people to fill two vacant seats.
Ellen Weintraub, the FEC chairwoman and the only sitting Democratic commissioner, has frequently criticised her colleagues for what she views as an unwillingness to adequately regulate campaign finance, including the threat of foreign money.
In a letter to Congress sent last September, Weintraub said the FEC was “naively and dangerously” ignoring the reality of foreign interference and had no plan to counter it.
“This situation will not improve until this commission has at least four members who are willing to enforce existing law barring foreign-national political involvement and address dark money,” Weintraub wrote.