New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ chief fundraiser was implicated last month in an alleged straw donor scheme involving the Turkish government and a Brooklyn construction company. The allegations were the latest in a series of political scandals consuming the Adams administration that involve foreign influence and alleged campaign finance violations.
However, new evidence collected by Focus on Western Islamism has uncovered another potential foreign influence operation aimed at City Hall. Campaign finance records indicate that Adams has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the fanatical members of a cult-like Pakistani political party registered as a foreign agent under U.S. law. In private fundraisers and public events honoring the Pakistani American community, Hizzoner aggressively courts members of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the Islamist political party founded by former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan.
Adams was close to the late secretary general of PTI’s American wing (PTI-USA), who once called for overseas Pakistanis to engage in violent “jihad” against India. His PTI connections include an unusual number of contractors from the city’s notoriously seedy construction industry, a radical Kashmiri separatist, and even a Pakistani diplomat accused of being a “bona fide terrorist sympathizer.”
PTI is a populist political party known for its anti-American conspiracy-mongering and Islamist views. The party’s lifetime chairman and founder, Imran Khan, was deposed as prime minister last year after Pakistan’s first successful no-confidence vote in the National Assembly. Despite his fall from power, Khan remains especially popular among the Pakistani diaspora, which is prone to extravagant displays of devotion to the PTI chief.
For his part, Adams learned the value of being an internationalist early in his career, courting New York immigrant communities and visiting their countries of origin abroad. While serving as Brooklyn Borough president, the jet-setting Democrat visited international capitals in China, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, inking sister-city agreements with some of the world’s most repressive and authoritarian governments.
Adams rarely misses an opportunity to flaunt his cosmopolitan sophistication, donning traditional ethnic clothing and using artificial intelligence to speak to immigrant communities in their native languages. Yet, the mayor’s attempts at subnational diplomacy have exposed city hall to malign foreign influences. In addition to Adams’ questionable links to Turkey’s government, a September NY Post report identified the mayor’s special advisor to the Asian community as a “consultant” to Chinese Communist Party-backed organizations.
PTI Bankrolls Adams Campaign
Many of the same perils characterize Adams’ relationship with Pakistani New Yorkers, whose access to the mayor appears to be primarily facilitated through PTI intermediaries. The partnership has produced dividends for the veteran lawmaker, who currently enjoys some 47,000 followers on a “Pakistanis for Eric Adams” Facebook page managed by a PTI official.
Adams’ links to PTI extend back to at least 2015, when members of the foreign political party held a fundraiser for his 2017 NYC mayoral campaign. Adams, then the president of Brooklyn Borough, appeared in a photo op with donor Choudhury Zahoor Akhtar, a PTI-New York official who later ran for office in Pakistan on a PTI ticket.
During Adams’ 2021 bid for mayor, the Democratic candidate took part in intimate fundraisers organized or attended by PTI workers. One of Adams’ most vocal Pakistani supporters was the late Sam Khan (aka Abrar Ahmed), the secretary general of PTI-USA, whose donations to the mayor appear in Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records.
Sam Khan was the focus of a small scandal in 2019, when he gave a speech encouraging overseas Pakistanis to engage in “jihad” against India, Pakistan’s geopolitical rival. He also made dismissive remarks concerning “white people” and insulted Indian Americans.
Prior to his unexpected death in 2022, Sam Khan was a general contractor involved in residential and commercial construction. The PTI-USA leader even held a 2021 fundraiser for Adams as the chairman of the Asian Society of Engineers, Architects & Contractors, a professional association dominated by Pakistanis.
At least six other PTI leaders who donated to Adams happen to own their own construction companies, a situation that may raise alarms with NYC’s campaign finance board. In the past five months, two separate probes involving Adams’ mayoral campaign have featured construction owners who are suspected of using so-called straw donors to funnel illegal contributions to his campaign.
In the most recent case, Turkey’s government is suspected of using Brooklyn-based KSK Construction to illegally launder money to Adams’ campaign purse in exchange for special favors. Reports suggest that Adams used his influence as the apparent mayor-elect to persuade fire department officials to overlook building code violations of a Turkish-owned skyscraper, so that work could be completely on the structure prior to a state visit from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
There is no direct evidence of campaign finance violations among Adams’ PTI donors. However, the existence of at least 14 PTI-affiliated contributors to Adams’ mayoral campaign underscores the potential for a registered foreign political party to influence city politics.
PTI or POTUS?
In exchange for their support, Adams has lavished praise and attention on his Pakistani constituents. In August alone, the mayor attended three separate events commemorating Pakistani independence, and he has since appeared at other high profile gatherings honoring the Pakistani community. Each celebration was either sponsored by PTI-affiliated organizations or attended by prominent PTI-USA officials.
The most recent meeting occurred after Adams refused to host President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, following differences over NYC’s out-of-control migrant crisis. Instead of meeting the president, the Democratic mayor held a roundtable meeting on September 18 with the local Pakistani American community – including PTI officials.
Atia Shahnaz, a member of Adams’ community affairs team, was a key organizer behind the roundtable. A generous donor who backed Adams’ mayoral bid, Shahnaz is a member of the “PTI United” Facebook group and is frequently spotted fraternizing with the party’s local leadership. She is also the founder of the Pakistan American Skilled Women’s Organization (PASWO), one of several NYC community organizations that appear to be fronts for PTI interests.
Federal tax laws forbid 501(c)3 organizations from engaging in certain political activities, including fundraising and making statements in favor of a candidate for public office. Shahnaz did not respond to questions about her PTI links or PASWO’s possible violation of IRS laws.
Addressing the same audience, Adams enumerated the ways in which he supported the Pakistani community. When Pakistani men “were being pulled away and held inside federal penitentiaries, the women of this community came to me, and I rallied and called for their release,” Adams told PASWO. His statement was an apparent reference to post-9/11 policing in NYC, when dozens of Muslim men were arrested for plotting terrorist attacks or supporting international terrorism.
Other PTI officials were present at Adams’ September roundtable, including Saghir Khan, the leader of a group that advocates for Kashmiri separatism. Just weeks earlier, Saghir Khan was spotted in Times Square, where he was picketing against India with Ghulam Nabi Fai, an activist who spent two years in a U.S. prison for secretly lobbying on behalf of Pakistani intelligence.
Another attendee, Aslam Dhillon, is an elected PTI-USA secretary who gave more than $2,000 to Adams’ campaign. Dhillon is also head of the Pakistani American Association of New York (PAANY). It is difficult to distinguish between his work for the nonprofit and PTI, which co-host events together.
Hoisting the Star and Crescent
On August 16, Adams attended a flag-raising ceremony in honor of Pakistan’s 76th Independence Day. The occasion was not unlike the 33 other instances where Adams hoisted foreign flags over Lower Manhattan’s Financial District, but for one exception: the Flag of the Star and Crescent was raised by a Pakistani diplomat who members of Congress have declared “clearly supports terrorists.”
Masood Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., preceded the mayor in delivering remarks to a small crowd in the shadow of Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull. Appointed by Imran Khan, the ambassador is a dangerous patron of jihadist causes. His appointment as Pakistan’s top diplomat in the U.S. faced opposition from members of Congress, with one legislator calling Masood Khan a “bona fide terrorist sympathizer” for his connections to South Asian terrorist entities.
After delivering remarks, Masood Khan raised the Pakistani flag in tandem with Adams, who hoisted the Betsy Ross Flag beside him, a symbolic gesture that represented both the mayor’s embrace of the Pakistani immigrant community and his failure to understand it.
Behind Masood Khan, pop-up banners showcased the names of various Pakistani sponsors of the ceremony —an assortment of professional associations, political action groups, and charities, each claiming to represent Pakistani American interests. As with PAANY and PASWO, these organizations appear to be heavily influenced by PTI-USA.
Typically, nonprofit organizations that promote a foreign government or political party may be compelled to register under FARA, the U.S. law regulating foreign lobbying and public relations. This is especially true when sharing staff and board members with entities already designated as foreign agents. Despite attempts at reform, FARA remains inadequately enforced, allowing the proliferation of second-tier “community organizations” and “civic action” groups that operate as clandestine foreign lobbies.
A chief sponsor of the August ceremony, the American Pakistani Advocacy Group (APAG) fits this description. Co-founder Parvez Riaz was the former president of PTI-NY, while APAG’s community director, Zameer Chaudhry, lists himself as a senior vice president of PTI-USA. Adeel Shuja and Amin Ghani, who are also members of the Pakistani political party, were two of four APAG leaders to donate $2000 to Adams’ campaign on August 30-31, 2021.
Another group, the Pakistani American Law Enforcement Society (PALS), was also present at the flag-raising event. Police officers belonging to PALS are regulars at PT-NY events, where they have helped entertain Pakistani dignitaries. PALS’ social media team often shares its activities by “tagging” PTI Facebook pages, prompting at least one self-identified supporter to complain about the group’s partisanship.
Detective Rohail Khalid, an Adams donor, is the recently elected president of PALS. Khalid was forcibly transferred out of his Brooklyn precinct in 2019 following complaints of “persistent racist bullying” targeting a fellow officer. Despite this , Adams attended a scholarship and awards dinner hosted by PALS on November 18.
In addition to the flag-hoisting ceremony, Adams attended two parades honoring Pakistan’s 76th Independence Day. During the first of these, on August 14, he told parade-goers that “Pakistanis living in New York have an important role in the construction and development of the city,” according to Voice of South Asia.
On August 27, Adams appeared at a second parade – this one in Manhattan. In a write-up of the festivities, Sal Media referred to a “PTI contingent” of party workers “decked in green and waving the party’s flag with enthusiasm.” They rode in private vehicles and on an impressive parade float embellished with a larger-than-life image of Imran Khan.
Several PTI leaders wore sashes identifying them as parade officials. Mirza Khawar Baig, yet another elected PTI-USA leader who owns a contracting firm and has donated to Adams, was co-chairman of the parade and appeared on a stage next to the mayor.
Ignorance or Negligence?
It is unclear if Adams is aware that his outreach to the Pakistani community has exposed him to a foreign lobby. Questions to the mayor’s office about PTI and Adams’ relationships with specific party workers went unanswered.
However, what is clear is that a radical foreign political party that expresses deeply anti-American and theocratic views is exerting influence at city hall. Alarmingly, Adams’ links to PTI are strikingly similar to other suspected foreign influence schemes targeting the mayor’s office, including his involvement with city contractors who are aligned with foreign interests.
To protect the neutrality and independence of America’s most powerful mayor’s office, federal investigators, the IRS, and NYC’s campaign finance board should examine PTI’s political activities and take appropriate action.
Benjamin Baird is the director of MEF Action, a project of the Middle East Forum.