Windsor

Canadian steelmaker's connection to $1.75M donation for Trump sparks complaint

Wheatland Tube, owned by Zekelman Industries, made three separate donations to America First Action, an organization backing U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign.

Barry Zekelman, CEO of North American steel giant, is accused of violating U.S. law

Barry Zekelman, chairman and CEO of Zekelman Industries, is being accused of violating U.S. elections law. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

The Canadian behind a North American steel giant is accused of violating U.S. federal election laws for his supposed involvement in a $1.75-million donation to an organization that supports U.S. President Donald Trump.

The allegation, made to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), comes from Brendan Fischer from Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a U.S. non-partisan non-profit that aims to hold candidates and government officials accountable.

"The foreign national ban is very well established, and the FEC has issued a significant amount of guidance about the permissible and impermissible contributions under the foreign national ban," said Fischer, director of federal reform with CLC.

According to the court document filed on the afternoon of May 21,  three separate donations were made to America First Action by Wheatland Tube, a subsidiary of Zekelman Industries, where Zekelman is the CEO.

The document continues to say that foreign-owned U.S. corporations are allowed to make contributions, but only if the decisions are entirely controlled by U.S. nationals.

"If Barry Zekelman had recused himself from the decisions around these contributions, those contributions very likely could have been legal and would not have raised any legal red flags," said Fischer.

CLC is alleging that Zekelman "indicated to his subordinates that he wanted the company to make this contribution," according to Fischer.

The court document references a New York Times article by Eric Lipton, who investigated the donations that Wheatland Tube made to America First Action and Zekelman's involvement.

Lipton said CLC alleges the donations were illegal "because Barry Zekelman in an interview with me, said that he had heard about this from an executive at his company, and said it's your decision, but you know, it's something that seems like a good idea, essentially."

U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel

Those donations were made on April 5, 2018, June 4, 2018 and Oct. 17, 2018. All amounts were disclosed by America First Action.

On June 1, 2018, U.S. imposed 25 per cent tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Zekelman, who owns steel operations on both sides of the border, had been outspoken about his support for Trump's tariffs.

According to Lipton, Zekelman and his wife were invited to a private dinner with the president following the donations.

Last summer, U.S. imposed a 25 per cent tariff on imported steel, including that from Canada. (Tara Walton/Canadian Press)

Shortly after U.S. imposed those tariffs as a result of ongoing NAFTA negotiations, Canada imposed its own retaliatory tariffs.

Tariffs on both sides were finally lifted almost a year later. Zekelman celebrated that deal last Friday when the announcement was first made.

CBC News reached out to Wheatland Tube, America First Action, Global Affairs Canada and the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for comment.

Zekelman told CBC News he will not be commenting on the matter until it is over.

If FEC takes on the investigation, it could be years before a verdict is reached. A similar complaint launched by CLC in 2016 didn't see any conclusions before early 2019.

Fischer said it's problematic that a Canadian billionaire is able to make a donation to the president "and then get a number of policies that benefit his company in return."

"It's particularly important that the Federal Election Commission enforce the line against foreign influence in elections," he said.

With files from Chris Ensing and Jason Viau

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