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Did powerful Egyptian illegally donate to Romney?

FEC questions GOP presidential nominee about lingering contribution from Naguib Sawiris

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 Updated:

A joint fundraising committee led by 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has yet to return a seemingly illegal Election Day campaign donation from an Egyptian billionaire with wide-ranging business, media and reformist political interests, Federal Election Commission records indicate.

The agency is now asking Romney's committee why it hasn't divested of $78,000 from Naguib Sawiris, a telecom mogul and founder of the Free Egyptians Party.

Sawiris' cash, first reported in December by the Washington Times, is the largest among two-dozen donation the FEC deemed "contributions from possible foreign nationals" in a letter Thursday to Romney Victory Inc. Forbes estimates Sawiris' wealth at $2.5 billion.

The FEC gave Romney's committee until Oct. 10 to address the matter or face "an audit or enforcement action." In March, Romney Victory Inc. returned $2,200 it had received from Sawiris, federal records show, but no more.

The agency's letter to Romney Victory Inc. also lists what it considers various disclosure deficiencies, such as improperly reporting aggregate contribution totals.

Romney Victory Inc. treasurer Keith Davis directed questions to chief financial officer Bradley T. Crate, who declined to comment.

But an official for Romney Victory Inc. told the Center for Public Integrity that it intends to respond to the FEC's letter with documentation indicating Sawiris made the donation legally. The official also said the $2,200 it previously returned to Sawiris wasn't related to his immigration status but because Sawiris had exceeded federal contribution limits.

(Update, Oct. 4, 2013, 10:31 a.m.: In a letter Oct. 3 to the FEC, Davis writes that "our Committee has safeguards in place to ensure that contributions are made only by eligible donors." He added that people suspected by the FEC to be ineligible foreign donors "are eligible donors and are not foreign nationals." The FEC is within its rights to further pursue the matter but has offered no indication that it will.)

Representatives for Sawiris couldn't immediately be reached for comment. 

As executive chairman of Orascom Telecom Holding, Sawiris' business ventures have taken him across the world, including in 2011 to North Korea, where he met with late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to discuss business opportunities. Sawiris is also executive chairman of Italian company Wind Telecom.

Romney Victory Inc. is composed of Romney's own campaign committee, the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee and Republican state parties from Vermont, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Idaho.

Through June 30, Romney Victory Inc. reported having about $825,000 remaining in its account and no debt. Joint fundraising committees may raise large amounts of money from individual donors, then parcel out cash to its member committees that adhere to federal contribution limits.

President Barack Obama's campaign last year faced criticism that his campaign lacked safeguards against illegal foreign contributions and solicited online donations from overseas. The FEC has also cited Obama's campaign for accepting impermissible contributions.

It's not uncommon for political campaigns to initially accept most donations then return those deemed illegal or excessive in subsequent weeks.

Waiting months typically draws scrutiny from the FEC, although the agency itself sometimes waits months to take action against offending committees, if it takes action at all.