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Obama to Return Major Donations Tied to Fugitive

Mike McIntire|The New York Times

Two American brothers of a Mexican casino magnate who fled drug and fraud charges in the United States and has been seeking a pardon enabling him to return have emerged as major fund-raisers and donors for President Obama’s re-election campaign.

President Barack Obama makes a statement on his birth certificate at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 27, 2011.
Jewel Samad |AFP | Getty Images

The casino owner, Juan Jose Rojas Cardona, known as Pepe, jumped bail in Iowa in 1994 and disappeared, and has since been linked to violence and corruption in Mexico. A State Department cable in 2009 said he was suspected of orchestrating the assassination of a business rival and making illegal campaign donations to Mexican officials.

When The New York Times asked the Obama campaign early Monday about the Cardonas, officials said they were unaware of the brother in Mexico. Later in the day, the campaign said it was refunding the money raised by the family, which totaled more than $200,000.

As recently as January of last year, one of Cardona’s brothers in Chicago, Carlos Rojas Cardona, arranged for the former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party to seek a pardon from the governor for Pepe Cardona, according to prosecutors in that state. None was forthcoming.

Last fall, Carlos Cardona and another brother in Chicago, Alberto Rojas Cardona, began raising money for the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The Cardona brothers, who have no prior history of political giving, appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the world of Democratic fund-raising, Democratic activists said.

The money Alberto Cardona raised put him in the upper tiers of fund-raisers known as bundlers, according to a list released last month by the campaign. He and Carlos Cardona each gave the maximum $30,800 to the Democratic National Committee, and a lesser amount to a state victory fund. A sister, Leticia Rojas Cardona of Tennessee, donated $13,000 to the national committee, and another relative in Illinois gave $12,600, records show. There is no record of Pepe Cardona making a donation.

Although the two brothers live and work in Chicago, they maintain ties to Pepe Cardona in Mexico. Alberto Cardona operates an advertising agency in Mexico that has worked for political candidates backed by his brother, according to public records and Mexican news reports. Public records also show that the domain name for the Web site of a restaurant Pepe Cardona owns is registered to Alberto Cardona.

Obama campaign officials said most of the money raised by the Cardona brothers came from themselves and other relatives, donations of about $200,000. In addition, the campaign was identifying other donations, believed to total less than $100,000, that was bundled from other people.

“On the basis of the questions that have been raised, we will return the contributions from these individuals and from any other donors they brought to the campaign,” said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.

Pepe Cardona is one of the largest players in Mexico’s violent and tumultuous casino trade. In 2007, he survived an assassination attempt that was attributed to members of organized crime. The State Department cable, which was part of the cache made public by WikiLeaks, said he was suspected of illegally funneling $5 million into Mexican political campaigns in 2006.

Multiple messages left for Alberto and Carlos Cardona over several days were not returned. A sister-in-law, Sarah Westall of Minnesota, said in a telephone interview that it would be wrong to tar other members of the family with the negative publicity surrounding Pepe Cardona.

Westall, who is married to another Cardona brother, Gabriel, said Alberto and Carlos took up Democratic fund-raising because their extended family had long been involved in helping the Latino community and because they supported the president. There were no other reasons beyond those, she said. “I understand that it looks real bad,” she said. “But the rest of the family are really good people. Pepe is actually a good person too.”

Whatever the family’s motivation, the president cannot pardon someone for state crimes. On Monday, Democratic fund-raisers who have had encounters with Alberto and Carlos Cardona expressed surprise upon learning about their family history. Manuel Sanchez, a Chicago lawyer who is deeply involved in Latino outreach for the Obama administration, said he first met them in December at a finance committee meeting for the president’s campaign in Washington.

He said he had been told that they were involved in “marketing and advertising.” They impressed him as “very smart young guys who wanted to support the president,” he said.

“I did get the distinct impression that both of them are very well-to-do and successful in their businesses,” Sanchez said, adding that he “had no idea” they had a brother in Mexico or what his background was.

In Johnson County, Iowa, the authorities are well acquainted with Pepe Cardona’s past.

One of nine children of Mexican parents who grew up in Iowa, Pepe Cardona, who was born in Mexico, was active in civil rights issues at the University of Iowa and became president of the Student Senate. While at the university in 1990, he was accused of misspending student government money, and a year later he was criminally charged with defrauding associates in a telemarketing company he started, according to court records.

He was sentenced to five years in prison, and while free pending an appeal, he was arrested in New Mexico on charges of trying to smuggle marijuana across the border, court records show. He pleaded guilty to federal drug charges in 1994, but disappeared while out on bail, later surfacing in Mexico.

In 1998, federal prosecutors obtained approval from a judge to quash the drug indictment, wiping clean Pepe Cardona’s federal court record. However, his current legal status in Iowa, where a county judge had ordered him jailed in 1992, is more precarious.

On Monday, the Johnson County attorney, Janet Lyness, said there was still an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a probation violation charge. She said that at least twice over the last four years, a lawyer approached the Iowa governor’s office asking about a pardon for Pepe Cardona.

The last such request came in the final days of the term of Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, and was filed by Gordon Fischer, a lawyer who is a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. In his pardon application, Fischer explained that he knew Pepe Cardona from his days at the University of Iowa. Fischer declined to comment on Monday, citing attorney-client privilege.

Lyness, also a Democrat, said she had been told that the application had been initiated by members of Pepe Cardona’s family in the United States. She opposed it, and it was not granted.

“I can think of few people who are less deserving of a pardon than Pepe Rojas-Cardona,”  Lyness wrote in her response to the pardon request, adding that it would be “a travesty of justice.”

The first campaign donations by Alberto and Carlos Cardona came shortly after news articles revealing Pepe Cardona’s criminal past appeared in the United States and Mexico last fall.

One of them, a long exposé in September by a Mexican magazine, Proceso, chronicled Pepe Cardona’s relatively swift rise to fortune and notoriety in Mexico after fleeing the American authorities. He obtained Mexican gambling licenses, and with help from investors in Louisiana, he started opening casinos in and around Monterrey, eventually becoming known as Mexico’s “casino czar.”

The article reported that Tango Media, an advertising company it said is owned by Alberto Cardona, worked on the campaigns of politicians favored by Pepe Cardona in communities where he owned casinos. It also said Carlos Cardona was involved in one of Pepe Cardona’s business deals.

A review of public records found that several of the Cardona brothers’ business activities have intersected in the United States and in Mexico, sharing common addresses and doing work for one another’s companies. For instance, another brother, Arturo Rojas Cardona — Pepe’s main business partner in his casino and entertainment businesses — has an architecture and design firm that has done work for his brothers in the United States, including Alberto Cardona.

The nature of Alberto Cardona’s business is not exactly clear. On campaign finance reports, he listed his employer as Tango Latin, a Chicago company that seems to be connected to Tango Productions, a small video production, marketing and photography studio that Carlos Cardona listed as his employer.

A check of public records found that Alberto Cardona is the registered owner of domain names for the web sites of Tango Media and 40 West, a restaurant owned by Pepe Cardona, both in Mexico.

Westall, the sister-in-law, said she did not know what sort of dealings Alberto and Carlos had with Pepe Cardona, but she added that it would not be unusual for large families to help each other in their business activities.

“If someone in the family does web design, and Pepe needed someone to do that, he would hire that person first,” she said. “In Mexico, that’s the way it works.”