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Hotel magnate pleads guilty to U.S. campaign contribution scheme

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A prominent hotel executive in New York pleaded guilty on Thursday to conspiring to make $188,000 of illegal campaign contributions to three U.S. candidates via straw donors.

Sant Singh Chatwal, chairman of Hampshire Hotels Management, pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, to criminal charges of conspiring to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act and witness tampering.

The identities of the candidates were not disclosed except that they ran for federal office. A straw donor is someone who illegally uses someone else's money to make campaign contributions in his or her own name.

Chatwal has been a major fundraiser for Democrats including former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is considering a run for president in 2016.

One of the three candidates was Clinton, according to a source familiar with the matter.

A spokesman for Clinton did not respond to a request for comment.

As part of a plea agreement, Chatwal, 70, agreed not to appeal any prison sentence shorter than 5-1/4 years. He faces a maximum of 25 years in prison. The defendant also agreed to forfeit $1 million.

Chatwal entered his plea at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Leo Glasser, saying simply, "I plead guilty, sir."

The case was unveiled two weeks after Hampshire named Eric Danziger to replace Chatwal as chief executive.

Chatwal was to remain chairman of the privately held New York-based company, which was founded in 1986 and operates hotels in New York, Miami and the United Kingdom. Chatwal is also the founder of the Bombay Palace restaurant chain.

Prosecutors said Chatwal from 2007 to 2011 used employees, business associates and hotel contractors to solicit contributions, which he would reimburse, on behalf of various federal candidates and political action committees.

They said the scheme violated federal limits on campaign contributions by individuals, which in 2008 were $4,600 per candidate and in 2010 were $4,800.

In a recorded conversation discussed in court papers, Chatwal allegedly told a government informant that without political contributions, "nobody will even talk to you ... That's the only way to buy them, get into the system."

Prosecutors also said Chatwal tampered with a witness in June 2012, more than two years after a grand jury investigation had been launched.

"Mr. Chatwal deeply regrets his actions and accepts full responsibility for the consequences," said Lesley Bogdanow, a spokeswoman for Chatwal. "He looks forward to resolving this personal matter."

Bogdanow and Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch declined to identify the candidates who received the improper donations.

Chatwal was released on $750,000 bail. Glasser scheduled the sentencing for July 31.

The case is U.S. v. Chatwal, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, No. 14-cr-00143.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Eric Walsh)

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