By Tom Hays
A wealthy hotel executive and Democratic fundraiser who supported Hilary Clinton for president pleaded guilty Thursday to charges he secretly funneled more than $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to three unnamed candidates and coached someone to lie about it.
An informant caught Sant Singh Chatwal on tape in 2010 explaining that he believed his illegal fundraising bought him access to people in power.
Without the contributions "nobody will even talk to you," Chatwal said. "That's the only way to buy them, get into the system."
Chatwal entered the plea to evading contribution limits and witness tampering in federal court in Brooklyn as part of a plea deal. He faces a maximum of nearly six years in prison at sentencing on July 31 and must forfeit $1 million. He free on $750,000 bond secured by property in Manhattan.
Chatwal, 70, was not required to describe his crimes in court. After the plea, his spokesman passed out a written statement saying he "deeply regrets his actions and accepts full responsibility for the consequences."
U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement that Chatwal "sought to buy access to power through unlimited and illegal campaign contributions, funneling money from the shadows of straw donors."
In court papers, the three people who received the donations were described only as candidates for federal office. There's no allegation that they knew about the scheme, the papers add.
Chatwal, an Indian-born U.S. citizen, is the founder of Hampshire Hotels Management LLC. The company owns and manages hotels in New York, Miami, the United Kingdom, Thailand and India. His son, Vikram, operates the Dream Hotels, including one in Manhattan that's a popular night spot where he's been photographed with models and celebrities, including Lindsay Lohan.
The elder Chatwal raised at least $100,000 for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama and was among the celebrities, major Democratic fundraisers and businessmen invited to Obama's first state dinner.
Chatwal also was a guest at then-President Bill Clinton's state dinner for India in 2000 and helped arrange an earthquake-relief visit by the former president to India in 2001.
Court papers allege that between 2007 and 2011, Chatwal used his employees, business associates and contractors who worked on his hotels to collect contributions from straw donors in Queens, Long Island and elsewhere. He then arranged to pay the donors back, a violation of the election laws.
As part the scheme, an unnamed business associate submitted a bill to Chatwal for $104,745 in 2011 for purported work done for one of Chatwal's companies. Prosecutors allege that $69,000 of the total actually was reimbursement for money the associate had raised via straw donors.
In a conversation recorded in 2012, Chatwal instructed the associate that if he were asked if Chatwal gave him the money back, he should respond, "Never."
Chatwal directly backed several Democratic candidates with his own money — at least $31,200 since 2004, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Among them were New York Reps. Joe Crowley and Gary Ackerman, along with California Rep. Howard Berman and Florida Rep. Robert Wexler. He also gave money to Montana Sen. Jon Tester, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner.
The FEC records also indicate in 2004 he gave $2,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats' campaign committee.
A spokesman said the campaign committee declined to comment on the plea deal.
Spokesmen from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for Clinton did not respond to an email message seeking comment.
The Republican National Committee said Chatwal was just the latest Clinton fundraiser to be caught up in scandal.
"It's troubling that yet another of Hillary Clinton's top moneymen is embroiled in scandal and illegal activity," RNC spokesman Jahan Wilcox said. "The last thing our country needs is to go back to the Clinton days where money was constantly being traded for access."
FEC records also show Chatwal attempted to give money to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012 and 2013. Aides refunded the donation each time.