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Federal Probe Eyes Possible Straw Donors to De Blasio Campaign, Sources Say

 Mayor Bill de Blasio, seen here at the Woodside library, has come under federal scrutiny for his campaign finances.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, seen here at the Woodside library, has come under federal scrutiny for his campaign finances.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

GLENDALE — Investigators looking into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fundraising practices are scrutinizing his 2013 campaign for possible straw donors, sources said.

The federal probe is checking whether some donors to de Blasio’s mayoral run were either reimbursed for their contributions or given cash to pass along to the campaign in order to skirt the city’s donation limits, according to sources.

The city’s campaign finance law prohibits individuals from contributing more than $4,950 to a candidate running for a citywide office during one election cycle. And it’s illegal to give someone else money to donate to a campaign.

So far no donors have been accused of any wrongdoing, and sources declined to reveal which contributors they were looking at.

READ MORE: Here's What We Know About the Probe Into Mayor Bill de Blasio's Fundraising

A DNAinfo New York examination of de Blasio’s campaign finances has found some unusual contributions — one commercial driver who flip-flopped about making two sizeable donations and a Bronx landlord who said he did not give $4,500 to the mayor’s transition team, even though records show he did.

City Campaign Finance Board records show that two commercial drivers for a Queens beauty product wholesaler gave nearly $10,000 each to de Blasio’s mayoral run and transition team in less than two months time.

One driver is Rafael Zepeda, who lives in a third-floor walk-up in Corona and donated $5,000 by bank check to the de Blasio campaign on Oct. 27, 2013. On his contribution card, he listed his occupation as a driver for the wholesaler, Primary One LLC.

Zepeda made the contribution via a fundraiser thrown at a Washington Heights nightclub, but he did not attend the soiree, records show.

The maximum donation an individual can make to a city candidate’s election campaign is $4,950, so the de Blasio team later reimbursed Zepeda $50, records show.

After de Blasio won the election, Zepeda on Dec. 10, 2013 donated another $4,500 to his mayoral transition committee — the maximum contribution allowed under city rules to a transition team.

When DNAinfo reached Zepeda by phone late last month, he initially said he made the donations.

Hours later, Zepeda told DNAinfo that he did not make the donation and that he spells his name “Cepeda” not “Zepeda.” However, campaign records and a November 2015 arrest for driving without a valid license show his name is spelled “Zepeda.”

Records also show that Zepeda’s co-worker, Jose Zepeda, also donated the maximum amount to de Blasio’s campaign and transition team.

Jose donated $5,000 at an Oct. 21, 2013, fundraiser. The de Blasio campaign also reimbursed Jose $50 for contributing over the $4,950 limit.

Jose, who on his contribution card listed his home as an Elmhurst apartment and his occupation as a driver for Primary One LLC, later donated $4,500 to de Blasio’s transition team on Dec. 10, 2013.

He did not respond to requests for comment.

READ MORE: De Blasio Asked Me for $20K And it Was Hard to Say No, Developer Says

Aside from the Zepedas (it's unclear whether they're related), another Primary One clerical worker gave $2,500 to de Blasio on Oct. 29, 2013.

Sm-Ali Amanollahi is the president of Primary One LLC and a nightclub owner who lives in a $4 million mansion in Glen Head, Long Island.

Records show Amanollahi, his relatives, employees and associates gave at least $55,000 to de Blasio’s campaign between October 2013 and December 2013. The contributions came at a time when the de Blasio campaign received a flurry of new donors as he headed into his Election Day showdown with Republican candidate Joe Lhota and during the run-up to his taking office. 

Records show that Amanollahi, Jose Zepeda and two associates — one being the husband of another Primary One employee — each gave $5,000 at an Oct. 21, 2013, fundraiser. The de Blasio campaign also later reimbursed Amanollahi and the two associates each $50 for contributing over the limit.

The de Blasio campaign held three fundraisers on Oct. 21, 2013. A spokesman for the campaign could not say which event Amanollahi, Jose Zepeda and the two associates attended.

However, one of the fundraisers on that day was at the Roosevelt Hotel and featured Hillary Clinton. It was co-hosted by hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal, who a few months later pleaded guilty to a straw donor scheme in which he funneled more than $180,000 to Clinton and two other federal candidates from 2007 to 2011.

Records show that Amanollahi also gave $4,500 on Dec. 10, 2013, to the transition team.

Amanollahi — who owns the Amadeus Nightclub in Elmhurst, which got its liquor license in 2014 — declined to comment about his and his employees' campaign contributions.

Dan Levitan, a de Blasio campaign spokesman, said the campaign would look into the donations.

"We are reviewing the donations and will take any appropriate action," he said.

De Blasio's campaign — like others in the city — required all of its donors to sign a form affirming their contributions were made from their own personal funds. And like other campaigns, the de Blasio team also checked donors for felony convictions and if they ever had troubled municipal contracts.

But none of their routine vetting can fully ensure against straw donors, sources said.

Campaign Finance Board spokesman Matthew Sollars said that his agency audits all campaigns following each election, but the audit of the 2013 de Blasio campaign has not been completed.

"It is board policy not to comment on any particular campaign until the audit is complete," he said.

Records show that Amanollahi and his relatives have also given at least $17,700 to state Sen. Adriano Espaillat’s congressional and state Senate campaigns and $55,000 to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

“This is a family that the senator is familiar with,” Espaillat campaign spokeswoman Katharine Pichardo said. “We are not going to turn away if a family wants to be supportive."

DNAinfo previously reported that a Bronx landlord who lost $1.9 million in a Ponzi scheme that is connected to the federal probe of the mayor’s fundraising and an alleged pay-for-favors scheme involving NYPD brass also donated on Dec. 10, 2013.

Records show the landlord, Gerald Leibman, made the maximum $4,500 contribution to de Blasio’s transition team. However, he told DNAinfo that he never made a donation to de Blasio.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

Hamlet Peralta, who owned a Harlem restaurant popular with uptown politicians and NYPD brass and is accused of running the $12 million Ponzi scheme, also tried to donate $4,950 to de Blasio’s campaign on Oct. 3, 2013, but his check bounced. The feds arrested Peralta last month, charging him with one count of wire fraud.

Manhattan federal investigators have previously cracked down on straw donors in the city.

Jia Hou, the campaign treasurer for former city comptroller and one-time mayoral contender John Liu, was found guilty in 2013 of attempted wire fraud, obstruction of justice and making false statements for a role in a straw donor scheme. Liu fundraiser Xiangwu Pan was also found guilty of conspiring to commit wire fraud for helping to funnel money through bogus donors to Liu’s campaign.

Federal investigators and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office are also examining whether the mayor and his associates coordinated fundraising efforts to use the county Democratic committees as straw donors to funnel money to specific state Senate candidates, circumventing limits on single donors.