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Obama campaign returning contributions from donors tied to fugitive

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:09 PM EST, Tue February 7, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: An attorney says he saw "nothing nefarious" about the fundraising brothers
  • Report: The fundraisers' brother is a Mexican casino magnate
  • A State Department cable alleges connections with organized crime
  • Pepe Rojas is wanted on a warrant in Iowa after his probation was revoked

Chicago (CNN) -- President Barack Obama's re-election campaign said Tuesday it is returning about $200,000 in donations collected by two Chicago men after a newspaper report described their brother as a fugitive with alleged links to violence and corruption in Mexico.

"More than 1.3 million Americans have donated to the campaign and we constantly review those contributions for any issues," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. "On the basis of the questions that have been raised, we will return the contributions from these individuals and from any other donors they brought to the campaign."

The announcement came after The New York Times published a report detailing alleged ties between the two campaign donors and a Mexican casino magnate.

Carlos Rojas Cardona and Alberto Rojas Cardona began raising money for the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee in Chicago last fall, according to the newspaper.

Various members of their family gave a total of $200,000 due to the efforts of the men, an Obama campaign official told CNN.

The two Chicago-based brothers maintain connections with a third brother, Juan Jose "Pepe" Rojas Cardona, a Mexican casino magnate who pleaded guilty to U.S. federal drug charges in 1994 and later jumped bail in Iowa, the New York Times said, citing public records and news reports.

A 2009 U.S. State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks alleges that Pepe Rojas had ties with violence and organized crime. Citing an anonymous source, the cable also alleges that Pepe Rojas and another brother had donated millions of dollars to political campaigns in northern Mexico, in addition to providing one candidate with a helicopter and free advertising.

"Obviously we didn't know who these folks were, and they themselves were not the guilty party, and the vet didn't go deep enough, obviously," David Axelrod, a senior strategist for Obama's re-election campaign, said on MSNBC Tuesday morning. "When we found out about these entanglements, we returned all the money that they donated and raised, and we'll continue to do that."

That was the right move, according to Manny Sanchez, a Chicago attorney and staunch Obama supporter.

"If it appears like it might be questionable, the smartest thing is to return the money and just back off," said Sanchez, who first met Carlos and Alberto Rojas at a fundraiser organized by influential Latino Democrats in Chicago last December.

"The appearance doesn't look good, but I can tell you this: nothing nefarious was involved in any of the exposures I had to either of the brothers. ... The brother in Mexico, the name never came up nor did any activity with respect to this brother ever come up," he said.

They might not have anything to do with their brother's alleged activities in Mexico, he said.

"I step back a second and say, just because someone's got a sibling with some issues doesn't necessarily impact or reflect poorly on the siblings that are here," he said.

Carlos, Alberto and Pepe Rojas could not be immediately reached for comment.

Accounts in the Mexican magazine Proceso describe Pepe Rojas as a "casino czar" with numerous holdings in the industrial city of Monterrey. The magazine said he had donated millions of dollars to candidates at the state and federal level, suggesting some donations paved the way for obtaining casino licenses.

Pepe Rojas pleaded guilty to federal drug charges in 1994 after authorities accused him of transporting marijuana in New Mexico. A judge granted prosecutors' request to dismiss the indictment and close the case in 1998.

He was convicted of felony theft and forgery charges in Iowa state court two decades ago, and there is still a warrant for his arrest there stemming from a judge's decision to revoke his probation after his 1994 federal drug arrest, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said.

In 1991, authorities say, he forged and cashed hundreds of dollars worth of employee paychecks while working as the vice president of a telemarketing company, Lyness said.

When an attorney requested that Iowa's governor pardon Pepe Rojas for the state charges last year, Lyness replied that he did not deserve a pardon.

"He hurt a lot of very innocent people in his actions," she said Tuesday. "He has yet to take responsibility."

CNN's Kevin Bohn, Gustavo Valdes, Rafael Romo, Rene Hernandez, Krupskaia Alis and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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