© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

FBI Alleges Hawaiian Defense Contractor Made Illegal Donations To Susan Collins Campaign

Susan Collins
Sarah Silbiger
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing on the proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Washington.

The FBI is investigating a Hawaiian defense contractor for allegedly making illegal donations to Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ reelection campaign and a super PAC that supported her.

A search warrant recently unsealed by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. alleges that Martin Kao and business partner Clifford Chen created a phony company to hide donations from Kao's Navatek defense firm and also reimbursed family members for contributions that they made themselves.

The donations to the pro-Collins super PAC totaled $150,000, while direct donations to Collins' reelection campaign were about $45,000.

If proven, the donations could violate two federal laws, one barring campaign donations made in the name of another and a second prohibiting contractors with the federal government from making political contributions.

In 2019, Navatek, which has an office in Maine, received an $8 million defense contract that Collins championed alongside Kao during a press event in Portland.

A spokeswoman for Collins said the senator's reelection campaign had "no knowledge of anything alleged" in the FBI search warrant.

Nothing in the warrant indicates that Collins' campaign was aware of the scheme.

Some of the evidence submitted by the FBI special agent to justify the warrant indicates that Kao told associates with the pro-Collins 1820 PAC to expect donations from a limited liability company — the same one he allegedly used to hide Navatek donations.

Brendan Fischer, with the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog, noted that super PACs are not allowed to accept contributions when they know they're being made in the name of another.

Super PACs are required to operate separately from candidate campaigns. There's nothing in the warrant suggesting that wasn't the case last year, nor does it suggest Collins' campaign is under investigation.

The FBI probe appears to stem from a separate charge against Kao that he defrauded the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal pandemic relief initiative that Collins helped author and that helped her successful reelection bid last year.

However, the straw donor scheme was flagged well before Kao was arrested last fall for alleged violations of that program.

The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint in February of last year with the Federal Elections Commission alleging that Kao created a phony company to hide Navatek donations to the 1820 PAC, a group that spent nearly $12 million boosting Collins' reelection bid with mostly attack ads against Democratic challenger Sara Gideon.

The FEC has not adjudicated that complaint, but the FBI warrant and accompanying evidence appears to validate the Campaign Legal Center's assertions.

The FBI special agent used the warrant to seize cellphones that belonged to Kao and Chen as well as other evidence, according to court documents.