There are only a few dozen Americans who have given at least $1 million to super PACs this election cycle, and Kareem Ahmed is one of them. If you manage to talk to him, he’ll tell you a lot. He’ll tell you all about a class of pharmaceuticals, called compound drugs, which he is in the business of promoting, and which have been the subject of a contentious debate in California, where he lives and works. He’ll tell you to read ProPublica’s reporting about Big Pharma. He’ll tell you House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is his best friend. He’ll tell you about his dream to someday take the proceeds of his business and build the largest non-profit children’s hospital in the world in Southern California’s Inland Empire. He’ll tell you how he fixed Democratic political strategist Paul Begala’s leg. He’ll tell you how much he loves President Barack Obama, whom he has met on a number of occasions.
He told me several times that he thought I’d been hired by Republicans, insurance companies, or his competition to destroy him.
“I really want to educate you, Eric, I really do,” Ahmed said in an interview over the phone in late August. “Because, you know what, because I’m prepared. My law firms are ready to go, and I’ve got PR firms retained already. They’re waiting for your article.”
“Because the message I got from you, Eric, was, you have been hired by either the Republicans or by the competition, or somebody, just out to destroy me, without even knowing the facts,” he said. “So what would you do if you were in my shoes? So I’ve got the White House on notice. I’ve got everybody on notice. That all right, I can’t wait until this thing comes out, and we’re going to go after your publication, you, and whatever, and if there’s anything that’s defamatory, that’s not factual, oh yeah, I’m ready. We’re waiting. My employees are watching. My law firms are watching. I mean, they are watching you. Like, every move.”
Part of the reason Ahmed felt the way he did was, in early August, I showed up at his office uninvited. Numerous attempts to schedule an interview had been either ignored or rebuffed, and I had been told that Ahmed was booked solid for weeks. But I was hoping to meet a man who had never given a press interview, and who has quietly come out of nowhere to become one of President Obama’s biggest individual financial backers. The same man runs a company, Landmark Medical Management, which experts and officials in California say is among several that have made millions of dollars over the past few years by capitalizing on a peculiar and newly carved-out corner of the state’s workers’ compensation system. Issues related to the drugs supported by Ahmed have already prompted California lawmakers to pass one new law, and may yet inspire more legislative action. I had questions about these topics.
The day I showed up at Landmark Medical Management’s office, on the second floor of an unremarkable two-story office building in Ontario, Calif., Ahmed agreed only to a brief, off-the-record conversation in the presence of his lawyer. In that meeting, he asked that questions be sent to him in an email, so that he could draft written responses. A few days after that first meeting, I sent Ahmed an email with several dozen queries, most concerning the activities of at least six active companies tied to Ahmed that are registered to office suites in the same building as Landmark. I received no response to that email. A few weeks later, I followed up with a phone call, and found that Ahmed suddenly had lots to say.
“So what I’m saying, my friend, is, as long as it’s honest, it’s truthful, I have no problem,” he told me. “It doesn’t make a difference. But if it’s unfactual, it’s defamatory, you are trying to destroy me in cahoots with somebody else, then there’s going to be a problem.”
You’d be forgiven if you don’t recognize Ahmed’s name. Before this year, his political giving was limited to a few four-figure checks to California candidates. Several veteran California politics watchers contacted for this story had no idea who Ahmed was, either. But here’s the thing: so far in 2012, Ahmed’s contributions to Obama, Democrats, and the outside spending groups that support them have totaled more than $1.1 million. Ahmed’s wife, Tayyaba Farhat, has contributed another $75,000. At a time when Democrats were most worried about their ability to attract the big-dollar donors that made Republican outside spending groups such behemoths, Ahmed became a gift that kept on giving.
Ahmed’s big checks started coming in February. The first, on Feb. 6, was for $35,800 and made out to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee supporting both the Obama Campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Only a few weeks later, two $250,000 donations went to Priorities USA Action, the most prominent Democratic super PAC. In March, Ahmed sent Priorities another $500,000. In April, the Obama Victory Fund got another $40,000. In May, his wife gave the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $30,800. In June, Ahmed gave $50,000 to House Majority PAC, a super PAC supporting Democratic efforts to retake the House of Representatives. Thousands of dollars from Ahmed and his wife have ended up in the campaign coffers of Democratic state parties and candidates across the country, including Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida, Senate candidate Tim Kaine in Virginia, and Rep. Brad Sherman in California.
Ahmed’s donations have allowed him to rub shoulders with many of the most powerful people in the country. He has been to high-priced fundraisers and events with Obama and the First Lady, including a headline-grabbing May 10 dinner with the President at the California home of the actor George Clooney.
“I hang out with governors, U.S. Senators, Nancy Pelosi is a personal friend,” Ahmed said. “OK, listen, a lot of people are my personal friends.”
White House records show that a Kareem Ahmed met with White House officials as part of large groups of visitors on separate occasions in March and April, one with Ari Matusiak, director of Private Sector Engagement and executive director of the White House Business Council, and one with Victoria McCullough, a staff assistant with the Office of Public Engagement. It is unclear if it is the same Kareem Ahmed.
Ahmed’s donations to Priorities alone put him in elite company. According to figures maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics, only 55 individuals and married couples have given $1 million or more to super PACs this cycle. (Super PACs can accept unlimited donations but must disclose their donors, while donors to 501(c)4 organizations, so called “social-welfare” groups, remain completely anonymous.) As this article was going to publication, Ahmed ranked 15th on the center’s list of the top donors to outside groups who generally support liberal candidates, placing him behind Democratic heavyweights like the investor James Simons and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, and ahead of other notables, like the actor Morgan Freeman and former Loral Space and Communications Chairman Bernard Schwartz.
Priorities, run by former White House staff members, raised $10 million in August, its best fundraising month so far, and recent reports have touted how big Democratic donors are “finally” opening their wallets for super PACs. But back when Ahmed’s checks were coming in, Priorities was still dealing with headlines like this one, from Politico on March 20: “Pro-Obama super PAC struggles.” During the first three months of the year, Ahmed’s checks represented more than 20 percent of Priorities’ 2012 fundraising haul.
And yet, in the super PAC era, even a publicly disclosed seven-figure donor is able to get lost in the crowd. Ahmed provides perhaps the best example of how much can remain unknown about the individuals having the biggest financial impact on the political process. Even after embarking on a political spending spree, his public profile has remained virtually nonexistent.
Before this article, Ahmed’s only comments to the media came in the form of a short statement prepared in March, a document so boilerplate it reads as if it were written by a seasoned political pro.
“President Obama is fighting to help middle class families during tough economic times, to transition our nation to a clean energy future, to fight to keep improving our health care — the list goes on and on,” said the statement, first obtained by the website California Watch. “Priorities USA Action has the President’s back, and I’m proud to have theirs.”
In media reports on major donors to super PACs, Ahmed has been mentioned only in passing as the president and CEO of Landmark, described in multiple places as a “medical billing company.” That’s true enough, but it’s not the whole story.
Ahmed is middle-aged, with a round face, thinning black hair, the vestige of an accent, and a flair for hyperbole. His office is utilitarian — he sits at a wooden desk, with numerous computer screens arranged in a grid beside him — but his business card, with Landmark’s “LMM” logo featured in silver letters, is cut from extra-thick, dark blue paper stock. During our conversations, his tone shifted often from conviviality to aggression to supplication and back again.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com