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U.S. group files legal, ethics complaints over Ontario businessman’s Trump support


A Washington watchdog group has filed complaints of alleged law breaking and ethics violations surrounding Windsor businessman Barry Zekelman’s support of Donald Trump, including $1.75 million in campaign contributions.

The Campaign Legal Centre filed the complaints after the New York Times profiled Zekelman in a story Monday that described his donations and his efforts lobbying for trade measures that would help his companies.

“The trade issue and tariffs are a significant matter of public interest right now,” said Corey Goldstone, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Centre. “The purpose of these laws, both campaign finance and ethics, are to ensure that decisions are being made on behalf of the public interest. So what happens here is that a reasonable person would cast doubt on whether these decisions are being made ethically and with public integrity in mind.”

The Centre has filed two complaints involving Zekelman, the CEO of Zekelman Industries. The company is North America’s largest independent steel tube and pipe manufacturer, with 15 steel manufacturers in the U.S., and Atlas Tube in Harrow.

The first complaint, concerning campaign finance, was filed to the U.S. Federal Election Commission on Tuesday. It is focused on a $1.75-million donation to a group supporting the president.

“Foreign nationals, otherwise commonly referred to as foreign citizens, are not permitted to spend in U.S. elections,” said Goldstone. “We’re alleging that an illegal contribution was made.”

Zekelman, a prominent local businessman and philanthropist, has not responded to requests for comment. But he told the New York Times that the contribution was legal because his board members, who are American citizens or legal U.S. residents, made the final decision.

He also said the money was donated through Wheatland Tube, a U.S. subsidiary of Zekelman Industries.

Goldstone said that does not make the contribution any more legitimate.

“What we’re saying here is that any foreign national directly or indirectly making contributions in connection with a federal election is a violation of federal law,” he said. “Zekelman Industries solicited and provided substantial assistance in making these contributions. It’s a foreign-owned U.S. corporation.”

The Campaign Legal Centre filed its second complaint, to the Office of Government Ethics, on Thursday. That complaint concerns Stephen P. Vaughn, who was the acting U.S. trade representative, and his meeting with Zekelman behind closed doors.

The meeting allegedly violated ethics rules, according to the Campaign Legal Centre, because Vaughn had been a lawyer at King & Spalding, where his clients included Zekelman Industries.

The meeting also included a current lobbyist at King & Spalding who still represents Zekelman Industries, according to the New York Times.

Ethics rules in the U.S. ban senior government administration officials from meeting or communicating with former employers or clients for two years.

“He violated the ethics pledge,” said Goldstone. “This was a pledge that President Trump signed into law. It’s legally binding. Vaughn participated in a closed meeting to discuss official business with a former lobbying client, which was Zekelman Industries, and his former employer, which is the lobbying and law firm called King & Spalding.”

“The ethics pledge bars for a two-year period participating in these types of matters. And Vaughn was a in a closed-door meeting with them.”

Zekelman told the New York Times his focus during that meeting was the effect imports were having on his industry and finding a way to stop it.

Zekelman has long pushed for tariffs and other actions to stop the flood of steel tube imports into the United States from other countries, except for Canada. The manufacturing plant in Harrow is his largest.

On the heels of a new deal that Canada, Mexico and the U.S. struck last week eliminating steel and aluminum tariffs, the New York Times ran a story focused on the Washington lobby efforts of Zekelman and his company.

The deal eliminates the 25-per-cent tariffs against Canadian and Mexican steel that Trump imposed last June in the name of national security. Canada will also end its retaliatory duties on U.S. steel, aluminum and other products. That deal means Zekelman’s companies can ship products across the border tariff-free.

The New York Times reported that Zekelman funded his own advertising campaign and used “well-placed connections” to gain access to Washington decision makers and those close to Trump, including Vaughn.

The paper also reported that Zekelman donated $1.75 million to a group supporting the president, “skirting or possibly violating a ban on contributions by foreigners.”

The lobbying efforts led to Zekelman and his wife Stephanie having a private dinner last spring with the president and his son, Donald Trump Jr., the newspaper reported.

twilhelm@postmedia.com

twitter.com/WinStarWilhelm

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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