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More Questions About a McCain Bundler

By Matthew Mosk

A new question has surfaced this morning surrounding the bundling activity of Harry Sargeant, the Florida Republican who has raised more than $500,000 for the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain -- was it legal for his foreign co-worker to solicit political contributions?

The Post first reported on Sargeant's efforts on behalf of McCain and other political candidates earlier this week. McCain's campaign has credited Sargeant for collecting dozens of $2,300 and $4,600 checks, many of them from ordinary families in California. The manager of several Taco Bell restaurants, an auto mechanic, and the one-time owners of a liquor store all wrote big checks, even though many were not registered to vote.

Sargeant told The New York Times this morning that he at times left the task of collecting the checks to a longtime business partner, Mustafa Abu Naba'a. The problem with that is that Abu Naba'a is not an American citizen. According to court records, Abu Naba'a is a dual citizen of Jordan and the Dominican Republic.

The law on this question appears to be unclear, said Fred Wertheimer, a campaign finance expert who runs the advocacy group, Democracy 21.

"There's probably very little law on this," Wertheimer said. "If it is not illegal for a foreign national to bundle checks, it ought to be, since it's illegal for a foreign national to make contributions in the first place."

Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, said the Federal Election Commission has not explicitly addressed the question. Ryan said there appeared to be conflicting thoughts on this in a 2004 advisory opinion. For instance, in one opinion the FEC has advised that it is permissible for a foreign national to solicit a contribution, while in another it prohibits foreign nationals from playing any role in participation in a candidate's election activities, such as decisions concerning the making of contributions.

"There's a little bit of tension between these two different interpretations," Ryan said.

Abu Naba'a holds a one-third share in Sargeant's business, the International Oil Trading Co., which has a contract with the Department of Defense to supply oil to the U.S. military in Iraq that could be worth as much as $1.4 billion. He and Sargeant are both defendants in a lawsuit by a third partner, Mohammad Andwar Farid Al-Saleh, a Jordanian. The suit alleges that Al-Saleh was defrauded out of his share of the proceeds from the business.

Sargeant called the lawsuit a "typical case among business people."

"I've been friends with Mohammed for 15 years," Sargeant said. "People always make allegations in lawsuits. It's purely a commercial dispute."

By Post Editor  |  August 7, 2008; 12:20 PM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , John McCain  
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Comments

Where did it all begin? Let’s start with a May 28, 2008 article from MSNBC on msn.com by Aram Roston. The article, titled “Crossing Jordan: Iraq Fuel Deal Sparks Lawsuit,” was a clever play on the television show of the same name, which was perhaps the only thing clever about Mr. Roston’s report. The subtitle, which we know to be the title that’s just below the title, was “McCain Fundraiser Sued By Partner In Lucrative Contract With U.S. Military” and clearly spotlighted the intent of the report – the “lucrative contract” was somehow tied to McCain fundraising. Unlike the final episode of the Jill Hennessey series that aired on NBC, this report would dispense with the cliffhanger and cut right to the chase – obfuscation.

Although Mr. Roston did manage to get some facts correct, it was his gross misrepresentations that took his report from objective journalism to subjective attack. Mr. Roston got the following facts correct: The deal to provide fuel to the troops in Iraq involved the king of Jordan’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Al-Saleh. It involved a Florida businessman by the name of Harry Sargeant III. Mr. Sargeant is a former Marine Corps fighter pilot and a partner of a company called International Oil Trading Company (IOTC), a company that supplies aviation fuel to U.S. air bases in Iraq. IOTC is the only company that has bid for the Department of Defense contract to the supply the fuel that has met the Department of Defense’s contract requirements. Mr. Al-Saleh has filed a lawsuit against IOTC as a result of a business dispute with the partners of IOTC. And lastly, Mr. Sargeant is active in Florida politics. Those are the facts, but before I get to some of Mr. Roston’s misrepresentations, some background is necessary.

Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent establishment of U.S. forces at air bases throughout Iraq, the Defense Energy Supply Center (DESC) awarded a contract to Shaheen Business and Investment Group to deliver aviation fuel and diesel to those bases. The contract was awarded to the Jordanian company in 2004 and the DESC cited three reasons for the award: “price, technical capacity and reliability.” Unfortunately, SBIG failed to deliver even one gallon. The contract was then awarded to Trigeant Petroleum, a company founded by Harry Sargeant III, who was also the son and co-founder of Sargeant Marine, a twenty year-old company and the largest shipper of asphalt and bitumen in the world. The DESC stated that the contract went to Trigeant Petroleum because they were “the next in line for the award.” Trigeant Marine later became IOTC.

For the first obfuscation Mr. Roston states that IOTC came out of nowhere. “Sargeant’s IOTC has experienced phenomenal growth since the Iraq war started, transforming itself from an unknown business in 2004 to a major Pentagon contractor in only a few years.” Although IOTC was in itself unknown, the founders and parent company were not.

Sargeant Marine, founded in 1983 by Mr. Sargeant’s father, a retired Naval Officer of distinguished service, owns the largest fleet of asphalt tankers in the world. The tankers range in length from 350 feet to over 600 feet and with capacities of 7500 metric tons to 45000 metric tons. In addition, the company through subsidiaries also owns refineries as well as terminal operations. In the strictest sense of the definition of “oilman” by Upton Sinclair, Harry Sargeant III would have to be considered to be an oilman and to quote Mr. Sinclair, with “the right connections” to get the job done, because when “it comes to the showdown, the others won’t be there,” – as was the case with SBIG.

Mr. Roston makes the point that the DESC had structured the contract with a particular requirement and that was that the fuel must transit Jordan first and to do so would require a letter of authorization from the kingdom. IOTC and Harry Sargeant III was the only company with such a letter. Why would the DESC make such a requirement? The answer to that question is not that complicated.

To transit the southern part of Iraq was deemed much more dangerous than taking the convoys from Aqaba to Trebil on the Jordanian and Iraqi border and then via U.S. military escort through the Anbar province of Iraq, which was under Sunni control and had fewer insurgent attacks. By no means was the task perceived to be a cakewalk though, as losses still occurred, resulting in a standing order that if a truck in the convoy were to breakdown en route, the driver had fifteen minutes to get the vehicle running again before charges were placed under it and detonated.

Why is IOTC the only company to receive the “Letter of Authorization?” Certainly it is the right of King Abdullah to give out the letter to whomever he pleases to do so, but perhaps it is a greater testimony to the diplomatic skills rather than the political skills of Harry Sargeant III.

Much has been made of Mr. Sargeant’s relationship with the Governor of Florida Charlie Crist, but their relationship is one that did not result in recent political favoritism, yet is one that has endured over thirty years, the two close friends having met as young fraternity brothers at Florida State University in the 1970s. They were best friends and best men at each other’s weddings. Theirs is a friendship of fraternal brotherhood certainly, but also out of mutual respect for their integrity, drive, and success. While one was training to be a fighter pilot, the other was studying to become a lawyer. While one was forging a company that would one day be the celebrated as one of the biggest in the world, the other was serving his State, first as a representative of St. Petersburg, then as the Education Commissioner of Florida, followed by the Attorney General of Florida, and finally as the Governor.

Along the way it would only make sense that the Governor would ask his closest and most trusted friends to help him. Governor Crist asked Mr. Sargeant for his help to get elected, which he did and then asked him to be the State’s Finance Chairman for the Republican Party. As a friend of the Governor’s, Mr. Sargeant accepted. Mr. Roston confuses true friendship with cronyism, which leads him and other liberal journalists with an agenda to make outlandish charges - but now, back to the letter of authorization.

A skilled businessman, former fighter pilot and the definition of “oilman,” Mr. Sargeant would no doubt develop business relationships in the Middle East, and he has – quite successfully. Jordan is smack dab right in the middle of the Middle East, and one of the few countries that is a buffer to more hostile Islamic regimes such as Syria. Because of the efforts of Mr. Sargeant, a contingent led by the Governor of Florida and U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton were able to travel to Amman, the capital of Jordan and meet with the king. No other businessman but Mr. Sargeant would have been able to pull off such a feat of diplomacy and certainly the King of Jordan is appreciative. The ultimate goal of the mission would result in a symbiotic business relationship for the State of Florida and Jordan. It should be of no surprise that relationships are the keys to successful business results and perhaps why Mr. Sargeant has “the letter” when others do not. Mr. Sargeant can deliver – the king recognized it, the Governor recognized it, Rep. Wexler recognized it, and so does the Department of Defense.

Performance is the key, and it’s because of the performance of the contract that the DESC has continually commended Harry Sargeant and IOTC on their ability to get the job done, and under difficult and dangerous circumstances, hence the reason that the company continues to get awarded the business. Mr. Roston seems to take issue with those facts for some strange reason, and sites in particular that Mr. Sargeant is politically active, even going so far as to imply that the awards might have something to do with his fundraising efforts for Senator John McCain.

It should be pointed out again that IOTC first received the DESC contract in 2004. Senator McCain was not running for President in 2004 and Governor Crist was Attorney General Crist and Mr. Sargeant had not yet been asked to be the Republican Party’s Finance Chairman for the State of Florida, which happened after Charlie Crist was elected Governor. So to get the chronology correct, IOTC was the successful bidder of the DESC contract four years before Mr. Sargeant endorsed John McCain’s campaign for President of the United States. It should be pointed out that Mr. Sargeant was actually a supporter of Mayor Giuliani prior to the 2008 Florida primary and only shifted his support for Mr. McCain after the Mayor had dropped out of the race.

Naturally, obfuscation of facts don’t swirl around and go away, not when there are so many other left-wingers that want to jump on the band wagon and distort reality even more. How about get a congressional committee involved to help distort facts, which is exactly what Mr. Roston did. No matter that the Pentagon confirmed to NBC News that although IOTC was not the lowest bidder in 2007, it was the only company that had the required letter from the Jordanian government. In e-mail, a DESC spokesman said, "the decision was made on the basis of best value rather than low price. The award was made to a firm that had a higher price, but was rated higher from both a technical capability and past performance standpoint." Okay, so IOTC is playing by the DESC’s requirements. Isn’t that like only being allowed in the party when you have an invitation?

Needless to say, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D – Calif., wants to know more, quoting Mr. Roston’s account in his story that "Sargeant's IOTC has experienced phenomenal growth since the Iraq war started, transforming itself from an unknown business in 2004 to a major Pentagon contractor in only a few years." Remember Mr. Roston’s first obfuscation? Mr. Sargeant and IOTC have cooperated fully with Mr. Waxman and the committee need only confirm with the Department of Defense the superlative job that IOTC is doing in providing fuel for the troops – unless of course this is partisan politics during an election year. Ya think?

And that’s exactly what it is, because the next thing you know the Washington Post ran a story insinuating precisely what Mr. Roston had implied in his story back in May, that the DOD contracts were somehow tied to fundraisers held by Mr. Sargeant for Senator McCain’s campaign and that Mr. Sargeant was this “shady bundler.” The initial story ran on August 6, 2008 and stated emphatically that certain donations to McCain’s campaign were of questionable origins and from unregistered voters from California who lived in “modest homes.” The article was filled with many blatant inaccuracies and outright falsehoods that a retraction followed up in the Washington Post the very next day recounting whom the “questionable donors” had actually donated to. As it turned out, they had not donated to McCain at all. The Washington Post’s staff writer Ashley Surdin in Los Angeles and research director Lucy Shackelford, research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington really bungled that one. And at last check, it appears that the Obama fundraising juggernaut is pretty darn good at “bundling” themselves, having raised $20 million with 37 registered bundlers. There’s nothing wrong with raising money via bundling.

What’s the net result? Well, the net is the result, and that’s to point out the ridiculous number of misinformed bloggers now purveying Mr. Roston’s and the Washington Post’s inaccuracies as if they were facts – a classic case of obfuscation and partisan politics.

Time will bear out what are the true facts and what are the obfuscations as will Mr. Waxman’s Committee hopefully. Unfortunately for patriots and good Americans such as Mr. Sargeant, and for the troops that need his services, malicious, irresponsible reporting by those seeking to do damage for political purposes is disruptive and counterproductive to national interest. Maybe one day that won’t be the case, but probably not in my lifetime.

Posted by: Stephen Prosper Justice | August 19, 2008 6:27 PM | Report abuse

This reminds me of George Clooney going off to Switzerland to hold a fundraiser for Obama........hmmm?

Marvin Cruzan
Shell Knob, MO

Posted by: Marvin Cruzan | August 12, 2008 11:09 AM | Report abuse

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