A company controlled by a Canadian steel billionaire implicated in illegal donations to a Donald Trump campaign group has received at least US$58 million in contracts to help build the former president’s wall along the US border with Mexico.
Barry Zekelman’s corporate empire and family – including his wife and brother – have also made at least US$2.6 million in contributions to US politicians and political campaigns over the decades. On one occasion, Mr. Zekelman personally wrote a check to a US senator.
A Globe and Mail review of US government campaign finance databases and contract documents has shed new light on the political involvement of Windsor, Ont.-based Mr. Zekelman and his US companies.
That involvement, the review found, goes far beyond Trump’s donations that landed him in hot water with U.S. regulators earlier this spring.
Canadian billionaire Barry Zekelman’s company fined by US regulators over illegal donations directed to Trump Super PAC
In April, the US Federal Election Commission fined Wheatland Tube, a company controlled by Zekelman, for donating US$1.75 million to Super PAC America First Action. The FEC concluded that these donations were illegal because Mr. Zekelman helped orchestrate them. Under US law, foreign nationals who do not hold US citizenship or a green card are prohibited from making or participating in political contributions.
Mr. Zekelman has backed Mr. Trump’s protectionist trade policies, including the president’s imposition of steel tariffs in Canada. He pressured Mr. Trump to impose import quotas on other countries, which would disadvantage Mr. Zekelman’s non-US competitors.
Mr. Zekelman’s empire has also benefited from Mr. Trump’s policies in other ways.
Atlas Tube, a company owned by Zekelman, received two contracts to supply steel for the border wall in Arizona, according to federal government records. The first contract, dated September 23, 2019, was for US$52,563,747. The second, from January 14, 2020, was worth US$5,902,948.
In both cases, Atlas supplied steel tubing and other materials to Southwest Valley Constructors Co., which was in charge of building a section of the wall south of Tucson.
Southwest is one of the few wall contractors to publicly disclose its subcontractors in federal records. It is unclear whether Mr. Zekelman’s companies have also received contracts from other builders of Mr. Trump’s flagship project.
The Globe asked five other companies that built sections of the wall if any had subcontracted with Zekelman companies. None responded. Neither Mr. Zekelman nor Atlas responded to requests for comment.
The Arkansas Times reported in 2019 that Atlas would expand its Little Rock plant to produce steel for the wall. The Arizona Daily Star later found “Atlas Tube” stamped on the steel bollards that make up the border wall in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument area. The amount paid to Atlas for this work was not previously disclosed.
Under US campaign finance law, companies contracted by the government are prohibited from making federal political contributions. There is no evidence that Atlas gave any money to federal candidates or Super PACs. But donations poured in from other Zekelman companies, including Wheatland Tube, as well as Mr. Zekelman’s family.
Saurav Ghosh, a former law enforcement attorney for the Federal Election Commission, said the ban on donations could potentially also apply to businesses in the same family of businesses as a federal government contractor. . If the FEC commissioners found that, for example, the company making the donations was controlled by the same people as a company holding a contract, they could declare the donations illegal.
“If the parent company has the same officers and directors as the company with the contract, I think there are cases where the FEC would look beyond the corporate structure, and the legal fiction that it’s ‘is a separate entity wouldn’t be enough to allow them to make political contributions,’ said Mr. Ghosh, now director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, the watchdog group that has successfully complained about donations from Wheatland to Trump.
Campaign fundraising records show that in addition to donations to America First Action, Wheatland Tube also donated $250,000 to Defend Arizona on October 26, 2020 and $250,000 to the Associated Republicans of Texas Campaign Fund on July 20, 2021.
Defend Arizona is a campaign group that launched attacks against Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly in the 2020 Senate election in Arizona. Texas Associate Republicans primarily fund state legislative races.
Stephanie Zekelman, Mr Zekelman’s wife, has personally made at least US$60,800 in donations since 2008, according to the Globe tally. The largest includes US$28,500 to the National Republican Senate Committee in August 2008; $7,500 to groups supporting then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012; and US$3,500 to Martha McSally’s 2018 Arizona Senate campaign.
Ms. Zekelman’s most recent donations are checks for US$2,500 each to WinRed, a Republican fundraising platform, and to the Senate Conservative Fund in November 2020.
On some of her campaign contributions, Ms. Zekelman listed herself as working for Zekelman Industries, the parent company of her husband’s empire. All of her gifts give her a location in suburban Phoenix where she and Mr. Zekelman own a vacation mansion. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Alan Zekelman, Barry Zekelman’s brother and co-owner of the corporate empire, contributed larger sums. He has donated at least US$340,055 since 1995.
His biggest sums came during the 2012 election, when he donated US$97,500 to several Republican groups supporting Mr Romney and various congressional candidates. His other substantial donations over the years have included US$20,000 for the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee; US$14,750 for the Jewish Agency PAC and US$10,000 for the Michigan Strong Super PAC in 2022.
Michigan Strong is a group supporting Tudor Dixon’s candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2022. A former steel saleswoman, Ms. Dixon is a conservative pundit campaigning on a platform that allegedly excludes trans women women’s sports and ban abortion.
Alan Zekelman did not respond to questions from The Globe.
On several occasions, employees of Zekelman companies have made similar donations to the same politicians at the same time as Alan Zekelman or Stephanie Zekelman.
Senator Ron Wyden, a protectionist Democrat from Oregon who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, received $2,900 from Alan Zekelman in February 2021, plus $7,900 between three Zekelman employees in the same month. Sherrod Brown, an Ohioan who supports the tariffs and also a member of the committee, received a total of US$10,000, split among 11 employees of Zekelman Industries’ predecessor company, on July 30, 2008, plus US$2,300 from Mrs. Zekelman That day. .
Ms. Zekelman and Armand Lauzon, a member of Zekelman’s board of directors, each made identical donations of US$28,500 to the National Republican Senate Committee in 2008.
Federal campaign records show a single donation directly from Barry Zekelman: $1,000 to Evan Bayh, then a Democratic senator from Indiana, in May 2006.
Both publicly and privately, Mr. Zekelman has supported Mr. Trump’s protectionist agenda, including tariffs and quotas for imported steel. Mr. Zekelman has backed imposing steel tariffs on Canada, which Mr. Trump did in 2018, sparking a year-long continental trade war. Such measures have raised the price of steel in the United States and disadvantaged Mr. Zekelman’s competitors.
In April 2018, Mr. Zekelman attended a private dinner that Mr. Trump hosted with top campaign donors at a suite at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Over the meal, Mr Zekelman pressured the president to “reduce” the amount of steel imported from other countries by imposing quotas.
The conversation became public when leaked during Mr Trump’s first impeachment proceedings because it contained discussion unrelated to Ukraine. Mr. Zekelman’s involvement in the Trump Super PAC donation, meanwhile, came to light because Mr. Zekelman told The New York Times about it. Wheatland was fined US$975,000, the third largest in FEC history.
Mr. Ghosh said cases like this, in which Mr. Zekelman’s actions were only discovered inadvertently, demonstrate why the law needs to be strengthened. When a foreign company makes political contributions, it is very difficult to prove that the foreign owners were involved in the decision to donate.
Campaign Legal has backed tougher rules that would ban majority-foreign companies from donating.
“I think it happens a lot more often than we care to admit, but we don’t know because it’s so hard to detect,” he said. “Applying campaign finance cannot be done on the basis of luck.”
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