A man convicted in federal court on charges connected to a loan sharking ring donated more than $1,000 to Michigan Democrat Gary Peter’s Senate campaign.
Federal Election Commission records show that Xhafer Laho made five $250 contributions to Peters’ Senate campaign in 2013 and 2014. Laho was accused of helping convicted loan shark Tomo Duhanaj launder money as well as supplying the predatory lender with customers. Federal wiretaps revealed that he conspired with Duhanaj to cover up the thousands in cash and cars that the pair had exchanged.
Laho was convicted on three counts of lying to federal agents after a five-day trial. A district judge threw out Laho’s appeal for a new trial in July.
"The government presented sufficient evidence to support its argument that [Laho] was acting … to help Duhanaj hide and launder assets obtained through his loan sharking activities," the judge said. "This Court has determined that the jury's guilty verdicts on … are supported by sufficient evidence."
When asked about the contributions, a Peters spokeswoman said, "The donation in question was donated to charity."
She did not respond to follow-up questions about when and where the charitable donation was made. Laho’s contributions appeared on Peters’ most recent FEC filing and there was no note or memo indicating they had been donated to charity or refunded. Further, Laho’s name does not appear on any contribution refund reports filed with the FEC.
Prior to his 2012 arrest, Duhanaj, an illegal immigrant from Albania and a restaurateur, was a friend of Peters. The Democratic congressman participated in a ribbon cutting ceremony at the 2011 opening of Duhanaj’s Fortesa restaurant. Peters, a member of Congress’ Albanian caucus, also received thousands of dollars from him and his family members throughout his congressional career.
The restaurants Duhanaj owned were used to launder illicitly obtained funds, according to the FBI.
He ran a strong-arm operation preying on his countrymen, loaning "hundreds of thousands of dollars at high interest rates, sometimes exceeding 100 percent per year, to members of the Albanian community with the understanding that failure to repay the loans would result in violence by Duhanaj and his organization." He then hid the assets and laundered his money through associates like Laho.
"Loaning cash at excessively high interest rates while enforcing repayment through violence or threat is a federal crime," Paul M. Abbate, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit Field Office, said in a March press release. "Those who prey upon members of the community in this manner and act outside the bounds of the law will be brought to justice."
Duhanaj pled guilty in December 2013 and was sentenced to 41 months in prison. He will be deported back to Albania when he leaves jail.
Peters, who has railed against "predatory lending" in the past, received $15,900 from Duhanaj and his family between 2008 and 2012. Federal elections law prohibits accepting money from illegal immigrants such as Duhanaj, but Peters did not return any money until after Duhanaj’s August 2012 arrest.
While Peters has distanced himself from the convicted loan shark, he has maintained close relationships with others tied to Duhanaj and continues to rake in cash from the Albanian community.
Duhanaj said on wiretaps that he received a $1 million loan from Ekrem Bardha, a business partner, honorary Albanian consul general, and head of the National Albanian American Council (NAAC). While Bardha was not charged in connection to the loan sharking ring, he partnered with Duhanaj on several restaurants.
Peters has called Bardha a "dear and close friend" in the past and the successful businessman has reciprocated with generous campaign donations. He and his relatives have contributed more than $30,000 to Peters since 2008, including more than $10,000 to his Senate campaign.
Bardha’s NAAC also paid more than $6,000 to cover the expenses of Peters’ November 2011 trip to Kosovo and Albania. On Dec. 5, 2011, Peters received nearly $15,000 in donations from Bardha, Laho, Duhanaj, and their relatives.
Neither Bardha, nor Laho returned requests for comment. Duhanaj’s telephone number has been disconnected.
Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land said that the Democrat should break ties with Laho and Duhanaj’s past associates.
"Gary Peters' ties to this criminal ring raise serious questions about his judgment," Land spokeswoman Heather Swift said.