Drug Smuggler Made Clinton Donation in Cuba, Investigators Say
By DON VAN NATTA Jr.
MIAMI — Jorge Cabrera, a drug smuggler who has emerged as one of the most notorious supporters of President Clinton’s re-election campaign, was asked for a campaign contribution in the unlikely locale of a hotel in Havana by a prominent Democratic fund-raiser, congressional investigators have learned.
The investigators said the fund-raiser, whom they identified as Vivian Mannerud, a Cuban-American businesswoman from Miami, told Cabrera at a meeting at the Copacabana Hotel in Havana that in exchange for a contribution he would be invited to a fund-raising dinner in honor of Vice President Al Gore in an exclusive enclave near Miami.
Ms. Mannerud owns Airline Brokers Co., an airline charter service that operates among Havana, the Bahamas and Mexico.
On his return to the United States several days after that meeting, in November 1995, Cabrera wrote a check for $20,000 to the Democratic National Committee from an account that included the proceeds from smuggling cocaine from Colombia to the United States, said the investigators, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Within two weeks of the contribution, Cabrera met Gore at the dinner in Miami. Ten days later, Cabrera attended a Christmas reception at the White House hosted by Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the events, Gore and Mrs. Clinton posed for photographs with Cabrera, who has two felony convictions dating from the 1980s and is now in a prison here on a drug-smuggling conviction.
Cabrera’s contribution and smuggling conviction, which became public knowledge three weeks before Election Day in November, were one of the first examples of the questionable fund-raising practices that have brought criticism to the Democratic Party. By now, the case has come to symbolize the Democratic National Committee’s frenetic drive for campaign cash.
In early January 1996, three weeks after having attended the Christmas reception at the White House, Cabrera was arrested and charged with importing 6,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States on boats through the Florida Keys. Late last year, he pleaded guilty to those charges and was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison and fined $1.5 million.
The new details about the location for the solicitation of Cabrera’s contribution and the source of the money have come to light in congressional investigators’ interviews here with Cabrera. The investigators, who are looking into possible abuses of campaign fund-raising, are trying to determine whether Cabrera “laundered” drug money when making his $20,000 “soft money” contribution to the campaign.
Investigators had originally acted on a tip that an associate of Cabrera had delivered $20,000, in $100 bills, to Ms. Mannerud’s office. But in recent weeks investigators learned that that did not occur. Instead, bank records show that $11,900 in cash, from drug proceeds, was deposited into Cabrera’s checking account on Nov. 21, 1995, several officials familiar with the investigation said.
The cash was specifically deposited to help cover the $20,000 campaign check, which Cabrera wrote that same day, the officials said.
Ms. Mannerud, who herself contributed $80,850 to the Democrats, was described by officials as a “fairly prominent and successful fund-raiser.”
According to Bronis, Ms. Mannerud sought out Cabrera at the Copa to make a strong fund-raising pitch for the dinner, to be held in a few weeks in Miami, in honor of Gore. Ms. Mannerud and Cabrera found that they had something in common — they had both met Fidel Castro.
Ms. Mannerud told Cabrera that she needed to raise a certain amount of money to “elevate her level of influence in the Democratic Party,” because she was hoping the United States would normalize relations with Cuba, Bronis said.
Investigators say they were particularly surprised to learn that any solicitation of campaign contributions would occur in Cuba because of longstanding United States policy toward that country.
The United States first imposed a ban on trade and commerce with Cuba in 1963, allowing extremely few exceptions. The embargo was strengthened in 1992 to prohibit subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business in Cuba, and it was tightened again last year to, among other points, punish foreign companies that use property that the government confiscated after the revolution.
The embargo does not prohibit travel to Cuba, but rather the spending of dollars there without a special license from the Treasury Department. People with relatives in Cuba, journalists and a few others are allowed to go to the island, but only with the license.
Until last year, those people could fly on direct charter flights from Miami. But after Cuban fighter pilots shot down two unarmed civilian planes that belonged to a Cuban-American organization, Brothers to the Rescue, in February 1996, Clinton suspended the charter flights. The president recently renewed that suspension for an additional year.
People who obtain special licenses may travel to Cuba, but they have to travel through a third country. Ms. Mannerud’s charter service flies through the Bahamas and Mexico.
A Cuban-born American, Cabrera was arrested two times on serious drug charges in the 1980s. Both times he pleaded guilty to nondrug felony charges. In 1983, he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for conspiring to bribe a grand jury witness and served 42 months in prison. In 1988, he pleaded guilty to filing a false income-tax return and served one year in prison.
After his brief brush with presidential politics, Cabrera was arrested in January 1996 inside a cigar warehouse near here in Dade County, where more than 500 pounds of cocaine had been hidden. He and several accomplices were charged with having smuggled 3,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States through the Keys.
In January, Cabrera received an invitation to Clinton’s inauguration.