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Defense Contractors Created Fake 'Society of Young Women Scientists' to Make Illegal Political Donations

Three men have been charged with illegally funneling money to the reelection campaign of Sen. Susan Collins.

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Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) at a Senate hearing about covid-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on January 11, 2022.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) at a Senate hearing about covid-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on January 11, 2022.
Photo: Greg Nash / AFP (Getty Images)

Three former defense contractors in Hawaii have been charged with illegal donations to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and one of her political action committees, according to a press release from the Department of Justice. The men worked for a company called Martin Defense Group, which changed its name from Navatek after a scandal involving covid-19 relief money in 2020.

Clifford Chen, Martin Kao, and Lawrence “Kahele” Lum Kee are charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., violating a ban on defense contractors donating money in federal elections, and, perhaps most damningly, donating money to Collins through a shell company called the “Society of Young Women Scientists and Engineers.”

The men allegedly used the shell company to donate $150,000 to a political action committee called 1820 PAC in 2019, according to the DOJ. And family members of the men were also used to help contribute tens of thousands of dollars to Sen. Collins, with the three executives reimbursing themselves through money that belonged to the Martin Defense Group.

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Kao was formerly the CEO of Navatek and faces two additional charges of making false claims to the Federal Election Committee. Kao was also charged in late 2020 with fraudulently receiving too much money under the Paycheck Protection Program, set up in 2020 to assist private businesses at the start of the covid-19 pandemic. Kao, who allegedly lied about the number of employees his company had to receive more funds, has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

The 14-page indictment, which is available on the DOJ’s website, alleges a pretty substantial paper trail of Kao coaching family members by email on how to donate to Collins using his company’s funds:

In the body of this email, Individual G wrote, “All good? wasn’t sure if I filled it out right.” KAO responded by email the same day, “All good! Thanks!”

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The indictment also includes quotes from emails by Kao about setting up a new LLC and a PO Box to register the shell company, “Society of Young Women Scientists and Engineers.” The three men face five years in prison on each count and fines of $250,000 per count.

A spokesperson for Sen. Collins, a Republican, told the Washington Post that she had no knowledge of any alleged wrongdoing by the three men. But it’s not clear if her campaign has any plans to return the money. What did these three men expect to get out of their donations? Around the time of the illegal contributions, the defense company was being considered for an $8 million contract to develop safer hulls for ships in the U.S. Navy.

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From the Post:

Collins advocated for that funding. The Campaign Legal Center first raised concerns with the FEC about the shell company’s donation in February 2020, which the Hawaii news organization Civil Beat traced to Kao and his company.

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Collins, who infamously said that former president Donald Trump had “learned his lesson” after an attempt by his followers to overthrow the U.S. government on January 6, 2020, was first elected to the Senate in 1996 and is known as a “moderate” Republican, despite the fact that she spent the entire Trump presidency enabling the rise of an authoritarian asshole.

Martin Defense Group, which is based in Hawaii but has an office in Maine, did not immediately respond to an inquiry overnight. Gizmodo will update this post if we hear back.