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Obama refunds donations linked to family of Johnson County fugitive


This news story was published on February 7, 2012.
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Erin Jordan, CR Gazette –

President Barack Obama’s campaign is returning about $200,000 in contributions collected by family members of a former University of Iowa student leader turned Mexican casino owner.

Juan Jose Rojas-Cardona, who was president of the UI student body in 1989-90, has repeatedly asked Iowa Democrats to pardon him for Johnson County theft convictions he fled in the early 1990s.

“Why would we ever grant a pardon to somebody who has never served his time?” Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness told The Gazette Tuesday.

The Obama campaign said Monday it had decided to return the donations arranged by Chicago brothers Carlos Cardona and Alberto Rojas Cardona, who had begun raising money for the campaign and the Democratic National Committee last year.

The New York Times reported late Monday that the fundraisers are the brothers of casino owner Juan Jose Rojas-Cardona — also known as Pepe — who skipped bail in Iowa in 1994 and has since been linked to violence and corruption in Mexico.

The campaign said it refunded the money raised by family members after the newspaper asked about the brothers’ fundraising role. Obama campaign officials said they were identifying donations bundled by other people connected to Cardona, expected to be about $100,000, and would return those funds as well.

“On the basis of the questions that have been raised, we will return the contributions from these individuals and from any other donors they brought to the campaign,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Gordon Fischer, a lawyer and the former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, had sought a pardon for Pepe Rojas-Cardona from Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, but none was granted.

“Because Mr. Rojas-Cardona strongly maintains his innocence, he has become a fugitive, and has been separated from his family, friends and nation for 20 years,” Fischer wrote in the pardon application. “Whatever punishment Mr. Rojas-Cardona deserved, by any stretch of the imagination, he has most certainly been punished enough.”

Lyness told The Gazette she would not approve of the pardon because Rojas-Cardona has never served the five-year prison term imposed for convictions for theft and forgery in Johnson County.

“They said something about how he can never come back,” Lyness said. “My response was, ‘Sure he can. He can come and do his time in prison’.”

Lyness has not heard from Rojas-Cardona’s family, including his parents who live in Iowa City.

Iowa Democratic Party Spokesman Sam Roecker said party leaders have not had any contact with Pepe Rojas-Cardona or his family, nor has the party received donations from them.

“They aren’t donors and there’s no issue with them trying to exert influence. They aren’t on our radar,” Roecker said.

The Gazette reported in October that Pepe Rojas-Cardona had been accused in a U.S. Consulate document made public in August of orchestrating the assassination of a rival casino owner in Monterrey, Mexico, and having ties to powerful Mexican drug cartels.

Born in Mexico, Rojas-Cardona came to Iowa when he was a baby after his father, a skilled electrician, was recruited to work at Proctor & Gamble in Iowa City.

The Rojas family became permanent, legal residents and settled in West Liberty, where the kids — six boys and three girls — were involved in activities including tennis, soccer, photography and volunteer work.

Rojas-Cardona, a charismatic, well-dressed young man, became UI student government president in 1989. He and other student leaders were later accused of misspending.

He was charged with theft in 1991, based on allegations he wrote a bogus check worth $3,000 to a man who helped him start a telemarketing firm.

A Johnson County jury found Rojas-Cardona guilty of second-degree theft on Feb. 5, 1992. He was given a five-year prison term, but the time was suspended. When Rojas-Cardona was convicted in November 1992 of six counts of forgery and third-degree theft, however, the judge imposed the five-year prison term.

Rojas-Cardona failed to turn himself in to the Johnson County Jail on Nov. 15, 1994, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was never found, and most Iowans who knew him believe he fled to Mexico.

A federal conviction for drug trafficking was dismissed in 1998 after it was clear Rojas-Cardona was gone.

Sarah Westall, who is married to another Cardona brother, Gabriel, told the New York times that her brothers-in-law Alberto and Carlos got involved in Democratic fundraising because of the party’s support of the Latino community.

“I understand that it looks real bad,” the Minnesota woman told the New York Times. “But the rest of the family are really good people. Pepe is actually a good person too.”

Rojas-Cardona’s parents, Javier and Arelie Rojas, who live in Iowa City, could not be reached by phone Tuesday morning. They told The Gazette in October: “I wish you people forget about it. You hurt every time you talk about it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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