By Jonathan Swan - 11-02-16 06:00 AM EDT
The FBI is investigating an alleged illegal donation scheme involving a wealthy Saudi family that supports Democratic Florida Senate candidate Patrick Murphy.
The Hill has found no evidence that Murphy himself was involved in, or even aware of, the alleged scheme. The Murphy campaign declined to say whether the candidate is aware of the FBI probe, but the campaign said neither Murphy nor his campaign staff is being investigated.
The Murphy campaign noted that a conservative super PAC earlier this year filed a complaint on the issue that the FBI is looking into.
"This complaint was written by a Republican super PAC willing to say anything to elect Marco Rubio," said Murphy campaign spokesman Joshua Karp. "Neither Patrick nor any current or past employees have ever been contacted regarding this matter, and we are confident an examination of the facts will result in its dismissal."
Murphy, 33, is running against Rubio, the incumbent Republican, in a race that could help decide which party controls the Senate in 2017. Rubio currently leads Murphy by an average of 5.6 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.
The FBI investigation, however, relates to Murphy's first run for the House in the 2012 campaign cycle.
The allegation - originally submitted by a Republican super PAC run by a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) - is that Murphy's high school friend and major political donor, Ibrahim Al-Rashid, coordinated a "straw donor" scheme to boost Murphy.
Al-Rashid didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. And Murphy's campaign declined to say whether Murphy's attorneys had discussed the FBI investigation with Al-Rashid's attorney.
A straw donor scheme occurs when a wealthy donor skirts legal limits on political donations by funneling money into campaigns using other people's names.
For any charges to be backed in the Al-Rashid investigation, the FBI must prove that the person or people running the scheme reimbursed donors without their permission. It would also be illegal to agree to be the named donors using somebody else's money.
The GOP super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, claimed in its June complaint to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that 11 donors in Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida "participated in an unlawful scheme to funnel Ibrahim Al-Rashid's contributions, or were used by Al-Rashid to funnel contributions without their knowledge." A total of $24,050 was involved.
Al-Rashid is the son of a powerful and politically connected Saudi billionaire. He's been a major financial benefactor of Murphy's, giving almost $400,000 to his campaigns and to outside groups supporting the Florida congressman.
To support its allegation, the Republican group argued that "inconsistent and changing employer and occupation information listed for some of these contributors suggests that some may not have been aware that they made the reported contributions."
One example within the alleged scheme: A woman who describes herself in federal donation reports as the "owner" and "property manager" of a Texas-based company, Limestone Property Management, gave Murphy's campaign $300.
But she is neither the property manager nor the owner of the Texas-based company. In fact, she doesn't work there.
She lived in Miami at the time and was Ibrahim Al-Rashid's "cleaning lady," according to a Miami-Dade Police Department report filed in 2012 over a home burglary at Al-Rashid's property.
The donations under investigation came in 2011, during the early phases of Murphy's first campaign for Florida's 18th District.
When he began his fundraising, Murphy was 27, a former Republican, and relatively unknown in Florida politics. He had no political experience and, given his age, only limited private-sector experience as a certified public accountant and in an environmental cleanup business.
Murphy benefited from having a wealthy father, who has given more than $3 million to groups supporting his son's campaigns. But in the earliest stages of his political career, Murphy also needed to show he could raise money from a broad range of donors in order to be taken seriously by the Democratic Party.
Murphy succeeded quickly. He forced political observers to take notice when his campaign announced an April 2011 quarterly fundraising haul exceeding $350,000. That's a serious haul for a first-time House candidate in the early months of a year before an election.
From that date forward, no pundit could deny Murphy's status as a top-tier candidate.
Murphy won his primary, and in November 2012 he beat Republican incumbent Allen West in a race so close it took several days to decide. Murphy won reelection in 2014.
In 2015, he announced he was running for the Senate. He crushed Rep. Alan Grayson in the Democratic primary and is now entering the final week of a hard-fought race against Rubio.
In September, The Hill reported that the FEC was scrutinizing the Republican group's straw donor complaint.
Responding to that earlier story, Murphy's campaign spokesman, Karp, told The Hill the straw donor complaint was "frivolous and unfounded."
"We expect the FEC to dismiss it in short order, as they do with hundreds of complaints filed by partisan political action committees every year," he said at the time.
But sources have since confirmed to The Hill that the FBI opened a separate investigation. FBI agents recently visited donors named on the complaint in Texas and Florida.
The FBI declined to respond to questions for this story.
Kenneth Gross, one of Washington's most experienced political lawyers, told The Hill the FBI customarily avoids taking actions within the period before elections so as not to influence the results.
"Particularly when the candidate isn't implicated," added Gross, the former associate general counsel of the FEC.
The Senate Leadership Fund, which is spending tens of millions to help GOP Senate candidates including Rubio, has sought to directly implicate Murphy in the alleged scheme.
"At the time the contributions ... were made to Patrick Murphy's campaign, Murphy served as his own campaign treasurer and signed the FEC reports on which these contributions are listed," the group stated in its FEC complaint.
"Treasurers are responsible for the reports they file," added the group, claiming that Murphy ought to have been aware, for example, "that his friend's housekeeper in Miami" wasn't a senior executive at the Texas-based company.
In an unrelated development on Monday, Murphy and other Democratic Senate candidates returned thousands of dollars they received from another alleged illegal donation scheme.
After reading an investigative reportabout Boston's Thornton Law Firm, published Saturday by the Boston Globe Spotlight team and the Center for Responsive Politics, Murphy decided to return the $21,800 he received from a Thornton fundraiser in January.
"The Globe's investigation has revealed troubling details about these donations," Karp told The Hill on Monday. "We'll be donating it to the U.S. Treasury, because that is the right thing to do."
Allie Bice contributed reporting.