A company controlled by a Canadian steel billionaire involved in illegal donations to a Donald Trump campaign group received at least US$58-million in contracts to help build the former president’s wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
Barry Zekelman’s corporate empire and family – including his wife and brother – also made at least US$2.6-million in contributions to American politicians and political campaigns over decades. On one occasion, Mr. Zekelman personally wrote a cheque to an American senator.
A Globe and Mail review of U.S. government campaign finance databases and contracting documents has shed new light on the political involvement of Mr. Zekelman, based in Windsor, Ont., and his U.S. businesses.
That involvement, the review revealed, goes well beyond the Trump donations that landed him in hot water with American regulators earlier this spring.
In April, the U.S. Federal Election Commission fined Wheatland Tube, a Zekelman-controlled company, for giving US$1.75-million to Super PAC America First Action. The FEC found that these donations were illegal because Mr. Zekelman helped orchestrate them. Under American law, foreign nationals who do not hold U.S. citizenship or a green card are prohibited from making or participating in political contributions.
Mr. Zekelman backed Mr. Trump’s protectionist trade policies, including the president’s imposition of steel tariffs on Canada. He lobbied Mr. Trump to slap import quotas on other countries, which would disadvantage Mr. Zekelman’s non-U.S. competitors.
Mr. Zekelman’s empire also benefited from Mr. Trump’s policies in another way.
Atlas Tube, a Zekelman-owned company, received two contracts to supply steel for the border wall in Arizona, according to federal government records. The first contract, dated Sept. 23, 2019, was for US$52,563,747. The second, from Jan. 14, 2020, was worth US$5,902,948.
In both cases, Atlas supplied steel tubing and other materials to Southwest Valley Constructors Co., which was in charge of building a section of the wall south of Tucson.
Southwest is one of the few wall contractors to publicly disclose its subcontractors in federal records. It is unclear whether Mr. Zekelman’s companies also received contracts from other builders of Mr. Trump’s signature project.
The Globe asked five other companies that built sections of the wall whether any had subcontracted with any Zekelman companies. None responded. Neither Mr. Zekelman nor Atlas replied to requests for comment.
The Arkansas Times reported in 2019 that Atlas would expand its facility in Little Rock to produce steel for the wall. The Arizona Daily Star later found “Atlas Tube” stamped on the steel bollards that make up the border wall in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument area. The amount that Atlas was paid for this work has not previously been disclosed.
Under U.S. campaign finance law, companies with government contracts are forbidden from making federal political contributions. There is no evidence that Atlas donated money to federal candidates or Super PACs. But donations have flowed from other Zekelman companies, including Wheatland Tube, as well as from Mr. Zekelman’s family.
Saurav Ghosh, a former enforcement lawyer for the Federal Elections Commission, said the donation ban could potentially also apply to companies in the same corporate family as a federal government contractor. If FEC commissioners found that, for instance, the company making donations was controlled by the same people as a company holding a contract, they could rule the donations illegal.
“If the parent company has the same officers and directors as the company with the contract, I think there are cases where the FEC would look past the corporate structure, and the legal fiction that it’s a separate entity wouldn’t be enough to allow them to make political contributions,” said Mr. Ghosh, now director of federal reform at Campaign Legal Center, the watchdog group that successfully complained about Wheatland’s Trump donations.
Campaign finance records show that, in addition to donations to America First Action, Wheatland Tube also contributed US$250,000 to Defend Arizona on Oct. 26, 2020 and US$250,000 to the Associated Republicans of Texas Campaign Fund on July 20, 2021.
Defend Arizona is a campaign group that ran attacks against Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly in the 2020 Arizona Senate election. Associated Republicans of Texas primarily bankrolls state legislative races.
Stephanie Zekelman, Mr. Zekelman’s wife, has personally made at least US$60,800 in donations since 2008, according to The Globe’s tally. The largest include US$28,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in August of 2008; US$7,500 to groups backing then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012; and US$3,500 to Martha McSally’s Arizona Senate campaign in 2018.
Ms. Zekelman’s most recent donations are cheques for US$2,500 each to WinRed, a Republican fundraising platform, and the Senate Conservatives Fund in November, 2020.
On some of her campaign contributions, Ms. Zekelman listed herself as working for Zekelman Industries, the parent company of her husband’s empire. All of her donations give her location as a Phoenix suburb where she and Mr. Zekelman own a holiday mansion. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Alan Zekelman, Barry Zekelman’s brother and part owner of the corporate empire, contributed larger amounts. He has given at least US$340,055 since 1995.
His largest sums came during the 2012 election, when he donated US$97,500 to several Republican groups backing Mr. Romney and various congressional candidates. His other substantial donations over the years have included US$20,000 for the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee; US$14,750 for the Jewish Agency PAC and US$10,000 to Michigan Strong Super PAC in 2022.
Michigan Strong is a group supporting Tudor Dixon’s bid for the 2022 Republican gubernatorial nomination. A former steel-industry salesperson, Ms. Dixon is a conservative pundit campaigning on a platform that would exclude transwomen from women’s sports and ban abortion.
Alan Zekelman did not respond to The Globe’s questions.
On several occasions, employees of the Zekelman companies made similar donations to the same politicians at the same time as Alan Zekelman or Stephanie Zekelman.
Senator Ron Wyden, a protectionist Democrat from Oregon who chairs the Senate finance committee, received US$2,900 from Alan Zekelman in February, 2021, plus US$7,900 between three Zekelman employees that same month. Sherrod Brown, a tariff-supporting Ohioan and also a member of the committee, received a total of US$10,000, split between 11 employees of Zekelman Industries’ predecessor company, on July 30, 2008, plus US$2,300 from Ms. Zekelman on that day.
Ms. Zekelman and Armand Lauzon, a Zekelman board member, each gave identical US$28,500 donations to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2008.
Federal campaign records show a single donation directly from Barry Zekelman: US$1,000 to Evan Bayh, then a Democratic senator from Indiana, in May of 2006.
Both publicly and privately, Mr. Zekelman supported Mr. Trump’s protectionist agenda, including tariffs and quotas for imported steel. Mr. Zekelman backed slapping steel tariffs on Canada, which Mr. Trump did in 2018, leading to a year-long continental trade war. Such measures pushed up the price of steel in the U.S. and put Mr. Zekelman’s competitors at a disadvantage.
In April of 2018, Mr. Zekelman attended a private dinner that Mr. Trump held with major campaign donors at a suite in the Trump International Hotel in Washington. During the meal, Mr. Zekelman lobbied the president to “throttle back” the amount of steel imported from other countries by imposing quotas.
The conversation became public when it was disclosed during Mr. Trump’s first impeachment proceedings, because it contained an unrelated discussion about Ukraine. Mr. Zekelman’s involvement in the Trump Super PAC donation, meanwhile, came to light because Mr. Zekelman told the New York Times about it. Wheatland was ordered to pay a US$975,000 fine, the third-largest in FEC history.
Mr. Ghosh said instances such as this, in which Mr. Zekelman’s actions were only uncovered inadvertently, demonstrate why the law must be tightened. When a foreign-owned company makes political contributions, it is very difficult to prove that the foreign owners took part in the decision to donate.
Campaign Legal has backed more stringent rules that would ban majority-foreign-owned companies from donating at all.
“I think it happens a lot more often than we want to admit, but we just don’t know about it because it’s so hard to detect,” he said. “Campaign-finance enforcement can’t proceed on the basis of getting lucky.”
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