NEW YORK (TIP): It may appear to be a miracle that a man who only seven months ago, in April, 2014, to be precise, was said to be getting “up to 25 years in prison”, has escaped the feared and fearful prison term.

The US District Judge I Leo Glasser of the Eastern District of New York federal court awarded to Indian-American hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal, 70 on Thursday, November 18, three years probation and a USD 500,000 fine. The Judge also said Chatwal should continue doing the community service that his friends and family have detailed in nearly 300 letters of support to the court.

I am reminded of what The Indian Panorama photo journalist Mohammed Jaffer, a long time associate of Sant Chatwal, had said only last week when I had expressed to him that many believed Chatwal may get a jail term. “I know Sant Ji will not get a jail term. I know miracles have taken place in his life. And this time also a miracle will take place. He is a God fearing and religious man. He cannot come to harm”. How prophetic!

The Case

Sant Chatwal was charged with violating the Federal Election Campaign Act and illegally donating thousands of dollars to political campaigns in the US.

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According to court filings, from 2007 to 2011, Chatwal used his employees, business associates and contractors who performed work on his hotels to solicit campaign contributions on Chatwal’s behalf in support of various candidates for federal office and political action committees, collect these contributions, and pay reimbursements for these contributions.

Chatwal and his associates induced straw donors to make the campaign contributions, promising them that they would be reimbursed. A straw donor is someone who illegally uses someone else’s money to make campaign contributions in his or her own name.

Chatwal orchestrated a scheme to make approximately USD 188,000 in campaign contributions to three candidates for federal office via straw donors, and he often arranged for the straw donors to be reimbursed through his associates, ultimately paying for the reimbursed contributions with funds belonging to him or one of his companies.

The evidence against Chatwal included an October 2010 recorded conversation between Chatwal and a business associate who became an informant, in which Chatwal underscored his view as to the importance of political campaign contributions, stating that without campaign contributions, “Nobody will even talk to you. That’s the only way to buy them, get into the system. What, what else is there? That’s the only thing”.

Sant Chatwal repeatedly apologized to the judge for his behavior and said he had been humbled by the experience.

“I apologize for what I have done to my family. I have let them down terribly,” Chatwal submitted before the judge.

After the sentencing Chatwal said he always believed the US justice system to be fair and just and he has been given justice. “I am very happy with the verdict”, ha said.

Ahead of the sentencing, Chatwal’s lawyers had submitted a memorandum seeking leniency, urging the court to weigh Chatwal’s age and “lifetime of contribution” to others and the impact imprisonment would have on his family and community in sentencing him.

They had requested that a sentence of probation with substantial community service be imposed on Chatwal to enable him to “make amends by continuing to serve others and take care of his sons,” Vivek and Vikram who depend on him to an
“exceptional degree” due to their medical disabilities.

Chatwal “comes before this court humbled, filled with remorse and shame for what he has done, knowing that he broke the law and, as a consequence, disappointed the many people who depend on and look up to him,” the lawyers had said asking the court to recognize that he is a “good man, albeit one who erred, whose life has been distinguished by a devotion to this country, his adopted home , and a commitment to protecting and uplifting others”.

Over 300 letters of support from Chatwal’s family, friends and business associates, including former Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, author Deepak Chopra and Zee Network Chairman Subhash Chandra, detailing Chatwal’s various philanthropic activities, his contributions to strengthening Indo-US relations and his devotion to his family were submitted in court in seeking leniency from Judge Glasser.

Prosecutors however asked the court to reject Chatwal’s plea for leniency saying that he should be sentenced to 46-57 months as set forth in the plea agreement he entered with the government, saying that he knowingly sought to “undermine” the American government’s transparent electoral system and the criminal justice system.

“Given Chatwal’s background and his conduct, his pleas for leniency only underscore the seriousness of his offence conduct and serve to perpetuate the corrosive perception that there is one set of rules for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else,” they said.

But Judge Glasser did not uphold prosecution’s objects to leniency and went ahead to save Chatwal from a jail term.

Speaking with The Indian Panorama later in the evening Chatwal reiterated his admiration for the Justice system of America. He said, “The US Justice system is fair. I have got justice. And I would want all Indian Americans to have full faith in the American justice system”.

Asked if he would continue to work for strengthening Indo-American relations, as he had in the past when he made relentless efforts to cement US India civil nuclear energy deal, Chatwal said it was “my life’s mission to work to strengthen relations between the two great democracies of the world”.

What else did he plan to do? He said he would give more time to community issues. Indian American community needs to address a number of vital issues. He would take the initiative to focus on them.

Chatwal also spoke feelingly about the plight of immigrants without status. He said he could well understand the misery and agony of the divided families. He said he has been trying to help out “the unfortunate people” and would do his best to lobby for the immigration laws that would allow families to unite and give a legal status to all
“undocumented immigrants”, in particular, the ones from India.

Chatwal said he was grateful to friends and community for their loving support in his hour of trial and tribulation and asked The Indian Panorama to carry his heartfelt gratitude to all who had stood by him and prayed for him .

Chatwal who was accompanied at the court by his wife Daman and two sons Vivek and Vikram said he was proud of his family who stood solidly by his side and lent all kind of support.

The Indian Panorama received a number of calls from well wishers of Sant Chatwal to give their comments on the judgment. Many related how Chatwal has been helpful to them, in particular and to individuals and organizations. One, Peter Bheddah, a well known philanthropist of New York, who had a few months ago, told me how drawn he felt to Chatwal because of his charitable disposition and helpful nature and wanted to help him, said he was greatly relieved to hear that Chatwal has got three years probation in stead of a feared jail term. Peter is one of the persons who had sent in a letter to Judge Glasser seeking leniency for Chatwal.

Another caller who did not want to be identified spoke of the colossal contribution of Chatwal in strengthening India -US relations. He recalled how Chatwal would be on pins and run around to ensure the civil nuclear energy deal between the two countries was through. He said it was partly because of Chatwal’s efforts that the deal was ultimately signed.

However, there is no denying the fact that as against hundreds of admirers and friends, Chatwal has a handful of detractors, too. But, in the ultimate analysis, Chatwal stands out as a “good man”, a “helpful person”, ready to help anybody, any time.

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