John McCain decided Thursday to return about $50,000 in campaign contributions from California donors, after media reports questioned how a businessman with a lucrative federal defense contract raised the money.
Harry Sargeant III, a prominent figure in the Florida Republican Party, has raised about $500,000 for McCain's presidential bid.
The Washington Post was first to question Sargeant’s donor network. Some of them live in modest Inland Empire homes but gave as much as $4,600 each to McCain and other politicians. Some had never donated to a political campaign before, and some are not registered to vote.
The campaign sent letters Thursday explaining federal campaign finance law to all donors whose contributions were solicited by Sargeant and his business partner, Mustafa Abu-Naba'a, believed to be a citizen of Jordan and the Dominican Republic.
Only U.S. citizens can donate to federal campaigns, and the money must be their own.
The letter said that if the contributions failed to meet these requirements, the donor should contact the campaign "immediately so that we can arrange a refund."
But rather than wait for a response, the campaign announced late in the day that it would refund money to 13 California donors who accounted for about $50,000.
"We're going to take the precautionary step of returning the contributions solicited by Mr. Abu-Naba'a," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said. He noted that one of the donors was quoted in the New York Times this week as saying he would not vote for McCain even though he had given the money. "It just didn't sit right."
The Republican National Committee also is reviewing donations arranged by Sargeant, RNC spokesman Alex Conant said.
Sargeant, who could not be reached, is a major federal contractor. In 2004, his firm, International Oil Trading Co., won a contract that has grown to $1 billion to supply petroleum to U.S. troops in Iraq. One of Sargeant's partners, Mohammad Anwar Farid Al-Saleh, is related by marriage to King Abdullah II of Jordan. He has long been a major fundraiser. In the presidential race, he donated to onetime Republican front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney. He is a significant donor to the Republican National Committee, the Republican Party of Florida and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a college friend who has been mentioned as a possible McCain running mate.
Crist aide George Lemieux said donations in the GOP governor's 2006 campaign were vetted and deemed appropriate. Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer defended Sargeant, who is state party finance chairman, saying that the "laws and requirements" of a presidential campaign differ from those that apply to the state Republican Party.
"I see no appearance of impropriety or anything that would require that the contribution be returned," Greer said.
"Harry Sargeant has been a strong advocate for Republican principles and has done well for the party."
Sargeant was quoted in news reports as saying that Abu-Naba'a and others helped procure some California donations.
Abdullah and Bahera Makhlouf each donated $4,600 to McCain on March 17.
That's the most an individual can give for the primary and general-election campaigns.
On Federal Election Commission forms, the couple listed an address at a peach-colored single-story stucco house in the blue-collar town of Downey. A woman who came to the door said, "I'm sorry; no English." Abdullah Makhlouf, listed as president and manager of a discount stereo store in Norwalk, did not return calls left at the shop.
Samer Abdalla, described in FEC documents as the owner of VIP West Insurance Services in Anaheim, declined to discuss his $500 contribution to Crist's 2006 campaign and $2,300 to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton last year.
A man who answered the phone at Al Huda Meat Deli in Anaheim -- where Mohammed Abdalla, a 2006 donor to Crist, was listed as owner -- said Abdalla had returned to Jordan a year ago and the store was under new ownership.
Berthelsen reported from Downey and Morain from Sacramento.