U.S. companies are allowed to make contributions to super PACs, which is exactly what Wheatland Tube, LLC did in this case. However, the decision to contribute involved conversations with a foreign national, and that led to a $975,000 fine to settle charges that the contribution by a U.S. company violated the ban on contributions made by foreign nationals. The fine is the third-largest in the agency’s history and provides an important lesson about the limits of foreign national involvement in decisions by U.S. companies to be involved in the political process.
The complaint concerned contributions totaling $1.75 million to a federal super PAC by U.S. company Wheatland Tube, LLC. Wheatland Tube is wholly owned by a U.S. corporation, Zekelman Industries, Inc. Canadian citizen, Barry Zekelman, is the CEO (as well as an owner) of Zekelman Industries.
Mr. Zekelman acknowledged that he discussed the contributions with Wheatland Tube’s president, a U.S. citizen who also served as general counsel of Zekelman Industries. But Wheatland’s president said that he exercised independent judgment in making the decision to contribute. The FEC rejected this defense, concluding that even if a U.S. citizen has “final decision-making authority or final say” over the making of a contribution, a foreign national – an individual who is not a U.S. citizen or lawfully admitted for permanent residence – may not participate, directly or indirectly, in a decision-making process regarding U.S. election-related spending. The FEC made clear that none of the funds involved appeared to have come from non-U.S. sources; the only violation was Mr. Zekelman’s involvement in the decision to contribute. To that end, the settlement also involved Zekelman Industries, because, even though it is a U.S. company, its executives were involved in the decision to contribute, and they were acting at Mr. Zekelman’s direction.