New York | Rejecting the prosecution’s demand for a jail term, a federal judge here has sentenced prominent Indian-American hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal to three years probation and a USD 500,000 fine on charges of illegally donating thousands of dollars to political campaigns. 70-year-old Chatwal’s lawyers asked the court to weigh his age and lifetime of contribution to others and the impact the imprisonment would have on his family and community in sentencing him.
In court papers, they had requested that a sentence of probation with substantial community service be imposed on Chatwal to enable him to make amends by continuing to serve others and take care of his sons — Vivek and Vikram — who depend on him to an exceptional degree due to their medical disabilities. US District Judge Israel Leo Glasser of Eastern District of New York federal court termed the letters of support for Chatwal, from current and former employees, members of the business community and charitable organisations, as unusual, saying it is quite impressive that about 272 people and organisations have written about Chatwal’s philanthropy initiatives and a lifetime of helping others in need.
Chatwal, a major fund raiser for likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, had pleaded guilty in April this year to violating the Federal Election Campaign Act by making more than USD 180,000 in campaign donations to three candidates through straw donors and to witness tampering. Prosecutors had asked the judge to impose a 12-18 months sentence on Chatwal that would serve as a deterrent to others. Chatwal, accompanied by his wife and son Vikram along with several friends and family members, repeatedly apologised to the judge and said he has no excuse for his behaviour.
I stand here with a heavy heart. I apologise for what I did to my family. I have let them down terribly, Chatwal said, reading out from a statement before the judge announced the verdict yesterday. Chatwal said he had been humbled by the experience and cannot apologise enough for his conduct, expressing his gratefulness for the chance to be able to admit his guilt. I love this country. I’m so sorry that I broke its laws. I was wrong to try to get around the campaign laws and interfere with the investigation, he said. After the sentencing hearing, Chatwal told PTI that he is very happy with the verdict. The judicial system in this country is very fair, he said adding that he has been working to strengthen the Indo-US relations and people to people contact and will continue to do so.
Glasser imposed a sentence of probation of three years and the USD 500,000 fine and said Chatwal should continue doing the community service that his friends and family have detailed in the letters of support to the court. Chatwal had also agreed to forfeit USD one million to the US and had been free on a USD 750,000 bail. Glasser rejected the government’s claim that Chatwal led a double life and was ready to break the law as he was intoxicated with proximity to people with power. The judge said that Chatwal violating federal laws seems to be an isolated aberrant behaviour. I’m feeling fairly confident that I am not cheating justice by being merciful, he said.
As the verdict was announced, Chatwal’s friends and family present in court shook hands with other and heaved a sigh of relief. Surrounded by his wife, who became emotional, Chatwal was escorted out of the courtroom by his friends who hugged and congratulated him. Chatwal comes before this court humbledfilled with remorse and shame for what he has done, knowing that he broke the law and, as a consequence, disappointed the many people who depend on and look up to him, the lawyers had said in a memorandum seeking leniency asking the court to recognise that he is a good man, albeit one who erred, whose life has been distinguished by a devotion to this countryhis adopted homeand a commitment to protecting and uplifting others.
The letters of support from the Padma Bhushan awardee’s family, friends and business associates, including author Deepak Chopra and Zee Network Chairman Subhash Chandra, detailed Chatwal’s various philanthropic activities, his contributions to strengthening Indo-US relations and his devotion to his family. Prosecutors had asked the court to reject Chatwal’s plea for leniency saying that he should be sentenced to 46-57 months as set forth in the plea agreement he entered with the government, saying that he knowingly sought to undermine the American government’s transparent electoral system and the criminal justice system.
Given Chatwal’s background and his conduct, his pleas for leniency only underscore the seriousness of his offense conduct and serve to perpetuate the corrosive perception that there is one set of rules for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else. Among the letters submitted in court is a November 2008 letter by then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who expressed his sincere appreciation for Chatwal’s personal efforts in working for the successful conclusion of the Indo-US civil nuclear initiative.
According to court filings, from 2007 to 2011 Chatwal used his employees, business associates and contractors who performed work on his hotels to solicit campaign contributions on Chatwal’s behalf in support of various candidates for federal office and political action committees, collect these contributions, and pay reimbursements for these contributions.
Chatwal and his associates induced straw donors to make the campaign contributions, promising them that they would be reimbursed. A straw donor is someone who illegally uses someone else’s money to make campaign contributions in his or her own name. Chatwal orchestrated a scheme to make approximately USD 188,000 in campaign contributions to three candidates for federal office via straw donors, and he often arranged for the straw donors to be reimbursed through his associates, ultimately paying for the reimbursed contributions with funds belonging to Chatwal or one of Chatwal’s companies.
The evidence against Chatwal includes an October 2010 recorded conversation between Chatwal and a business associate who became an informant, in which Chatwal underscored his view as to the importance of political campaign contributions, stating that without campaign contributions, nobody will even talk to you. According to court filings, Chatwal sought to obstruct the grand jury investigation into his Election Act scheme by tampering with a witness, a person whose business performed construction work for Chatwal and Chatwal’s companies and who had recruited straw donors at Chatwal’s direction.
In a June 2012 recorded conversation, Chatwal told the individual that if FBI and IRS agents approached him or his family, they should not speak with the agents and should instead refer them to a lawyer Chatwal would provide. During this conversation, the individual said that he would not tell agents that Chatwal gave him money to reimburse straw donors. Chatwal replied, Never, never.
While the identities of the candidates for whom the campaign donations were made were not disclosed, a Wall Street Journal had quoted a law-enforcement official as saying that the donations were made to the political campaigns of former US Senators Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd and former Florida Representative Kendrick Meek. There is no allegation that the candidates participated in, or were aware of, Chatwal’s scheme, federal prosecutors had said.
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