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Washington – Minnesota’s biggest donor to President Obama’s second inauguration was a 28-year-old who runs a marketing firm that caters to small businesses and who once pleaded guilty to “theft by swindle.”
State and national Democratic officials contacted Monday said they had never heard of the man, Johannes Marliem, who donated $225,000 to the president’s inauguration. That was just $25,000 less than multinational corporation ExxonMobil and more than twice as much as the state’s second-largest donor, Rockefeller relative Alida Messinger, who is Gov. Mark Dayton’s ex-wife.
Records released Monday show that Marliem, CEO and founder of the Marliem Marketing Group in Minneapolis, made donations of $100,000 and $125,000 to the Presidential Inaugural Committee in January. The Federal Election Commission also shows Marliem giving $2,500 to the Obama 2012 re-election campaign and raising $70,000 for the presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and several state Democratic committees through joint fundraisers.
The inaugural committee has been disbanded and no former officials could be reached to comment about Marliem’s inaugural donations. Speaking about Marliem’s presidential campaign fundraising, Brad Woodhouse of the Democratic National Committee said, “The criminal background of this individual did not come up in the routine vetting conducted at the time of the contribution. This contribution would not have been accepted by the [Obama Victory Fund] if these facts had been known at the time. We are investigating this matter and it will be resolved in accordance with our policies.”
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment, saying the inauguration committee was a separate operation from the White House.
Reached late Monday night, Marliem said the criminal charge arose from an overdraft involving two of his bank accounts while he was traveling in Indonesia, where he does business. Marliem, who holds a green card, said he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor to avoid a trial on a felony charge that might have led to his deportation.
Asked why he didn’t reveal the conviction to Democratic officials, Marliem said, “This is not a criminal matter they should be aware of. I was not stealing anything from anybody.”
Hennepin County court records show that in 2009 prosecutors charged Marliem with a felony for writing more than $10,000 in worthless checks. Marliem wrote the checks on a checking account at TCF Bank to deposit in a second checking account he had at Wells Fargo Bank, Assistant County Attorney Tom Arneson said. “He wanted it to appear he had money in both accounts,” Arneson said.
Marliem pleaded guilty in 2010 to a gross misdemeanor of theft by swindle. Arneson said Marliem asked for a reduction in his suspended prison sentence “because of immigration consequences.”
Marliem’s business website lists offices in Minneapolis and Jakarta, Indonesia. Marliem formed the company in 2006, according to the website, to provide “affordable marketing for small businesses and [open] portals for U.S. companies to sell products and services in Indonesia.” He said he has $600 million in contracts with companies making biometric identification systems used in Indonesia. He said he paid the inaugural donation out of money he earned from those accounts.
National Democratic leaders and Minnesota DFL leaders contacted Monday had not heard of Marliem. He is not a registered voter in Minnesota or any other state, according to voter databases. His business is no longer registered in Minnesota, records from the secretary of state’s office show.
“Any time you raise large sums in a short time, you’re going to have people who see it as an entrée,” said Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “You would hope if someone contributed at that level, you’d at least do a simple background search for your own interest.”
Instead, he said, “no one is in the business of saying, ‘We shouldn’t take this money.’ ”
Marliem’s donations were just a small portion of the more than $43 million that Obama’s inaugural committee raised for his second inauguration, Federal Election Commission reports show. Technology entrepreneur Thomas Gill contributed $500,000, making him the largest individual donor.
Some advocates of campaign finance reform objected to the inaugural committee’s decision not to limit contributions. In the 2009 inauguration, there was a $50,000 limit on individual contributions and a ban on corporate contributions. In 2013, the inaugural committee allowed unlimited contributions from individual and corporate sources.
Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, which gathered and distributed the inaugural committee’s donors list, said: “This time around … [the inaugural committee] didn’t have the same level of transparency of disclosure, and now they’re going to be embarrassed.”
Jim Spencer and Corey Mitchell are correspondents in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.