Embattled city Comptroller John Liu, facing heat over his 2013 mayoral campaign finances, returned more than $20,000 in donations last week amid federal investigations.
George Arzt, a spokesman for Liu’s campaign, said the comptroller returned “in excess of $20,000” in campaign contributions, but declined to identify which donors’ funds were given back.
“It will be part of the [campaign finance] filing on Jan. 15,” Arzt said, referring to the next deadline with the city Campaign Finance Board.
Arzt said it is expected that Liu will be returning more donations.
“This is an ongoing process,” he said.
Liu initially tapped former state Attorney General Robert Abrams to audit his 2013 campaign account following reports from The New York Times that uncovered donors who either said they did not contribute to Liu’s campaign or said their employers forced them to donate and they were later reimbursed.
Liu halted the review following revelations that a fund-raiser for his campaign, Oliver Pan, was federally charged with arranging for an FBI agent posing as a businessman to contribute $16,000 to Liu using straw donors.
Straw donors are contributors who are told to give funds to a campaign to conceal their true origin and are reimbursed. The method is used to get around campaign finance regulations.
The comptroller said he stopped the audit because of concern that Abrams’ review would disrupt the federal investigations now underway.
A TimesLedger Newspapers review of Liu’s fund-raising from 2009 and 2013 turned up dozens of questionable donations and possible ties to Norman Hsu, a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton who was convicted on federal charges of funneling illegal contributions to Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Chung Seto, who was a bundler along with Hsu for Clinton in Chinatown, was a consultant on Liu’s 2009 campaign.
A phone number for Seto’s company, the Chung Seto Group, was disconnected.
A visit to the company’s office, at 305 Broadway in Manhattan, showed the firm was no longer listed on the building’s directory and the floor where the office was supposedly operating from was now being used by a medical office.
Susan Chilman, a Burbank, Calif., television actress and model, gave $500 to Liu’s 2009 comptroller campaign, according to CFB records.
Chilman testified in Manhattan federal court in May 2009 that she contributed $42,000 to Clinton and other Democratic candidates and was reimbursed by Hsu.
Campaign finance records showed she also gave $2,000 to former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s 2009 and 2013 runs for mayor and Weiner returned both donations.
It was unclear whether Liu’s name came up during the testimony.
Hsu was convicted of using straw donors like Chilman to skirt campaign finance laws, the same charges Liu fund-raiser Oliver Pan, of New Jersey, now faces, albeit on a smaller scale.
Seto, who could not be reached for comment, was never accused of any wrongdoing.
Liu’s filings also showed 1,698 donations of $800 — the No. 8 is lucky in Chinese culture — in his 2013 account compared to just six in 2009.
His 2013 campaign so far has raised $1.36 million just from $800 donations alone. In 2009, the campaign raised $4,800 from $800 donations.
Some of the $800 donations came from people who held jobs like flight attendant, cashier and cook. Among the $800 contributors were nine students and 12 donors – all from the same company – only listed their occupation as “worker.”
Eleven of the $800 contributors said they were unemployed. while several donors did not list any job information.
Two cooks from the same Connecticut town but different restaurants, which at one time were owned by the same person, donated $800 to Liu’s campaign.
One cook, Pan Ming Huang, was from a restaurant named Ichiro, located in Shelton, Conn.
The other cook, Tung Pan-Yeung, was from a restaurant called Happy House just down the street.
Cheng He, a worker at another Ichiro restaurant in Trumbull, Conn., said a cook might make about $3,000 a month.
When asked if he thought $800 was a large contribution for a cook, he said. “Kind of for a donation. Maybe not for other uses.”
Among other donors contacted by the TimesLedger, relatives of a Bayside man who worked at a seafood restaurant and donated $800 said he was in Korea.
The relatives of a counter worker at Carnegie Deli who donated $800 said he was overseas and would not be back for a month.
But Yim Fung Sit, a Little Neck auto mechanic, said he donated money to Liu, but could not remember how much. Campaign finance records show he donated $800.
Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.
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