WASHINGTON – The bundle of $2,300 and $4,600 checks that poured into Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign on March 12 came from an unlikely group of California donors: a mechanic from D&D Auto Repair in Whittier, the manager of Rite Aid Pharmacy No. 5727, the 30-something owners of the Twilight Hookah Lounge in Fullerton.
But the man who gathered checks from them is no stranger to McCain – he shuttled the Republican on his private plane and held a fundraising event for the candidate at his house in Delray Beach, Fla.
Harry Sargeant III, a former naval officer and the owner of an oil-trading company that recently inked defense contracts potentially worth more than $1 billion, is the archetype of a modern presidential moneyman. The law no longer allows high-level supporters to write huge checks, but with help from friends in the Middle East and the former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit – who now serves as a consultant to his company – Sargeant has raised more than $100,000 for three presidential candidates from a collection of ordinary people, several of whom professed little interest in the outcome of the election.
After initially helping to raise money for former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sargeant, 50, has emerged as a major player in Florida fundraising for McCain. He has also become a conduit between McCain and Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who was Sargeant’s college fraternity brother and remains a close friend.
Some of the most prolific givers in Sargeant’s network live in modest homes in Southern California’s rapidly growing Inland Empire. Most have never given a political contribution before being contacted by Sargeant or his associates. Most said they have never voiced much interest in politics. And in several instances, they had never registered to vote. And yet, records show, some families have ponied up as much as $18,400 for various candidates between December and March at Sargeant’s request.
Both Sargeant and the donors were vague when asked to explain how Sargeant persuaded them to give away so much money.
“I have a lot of Arab business partners. I do a lot of business in the Middle East. I’ve got a lot of friends,” Sargeant said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I ask my friends to support candidates that I think are worthy of supporting. They usually come through for me.”