WASHINGTON — The FBI has launched a new criminal investigation into Hawaii defense contractor Martin Kao over campaign donations he made in support of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins after she helped steer an $8 million contract to his company, Navatek LLC, in 2019.

According to a recently unsealed search warrant affidavit, the case stems from a $150,000 donation a mysterious Hawaii company, the Society of Young Women Scientist and Engineers, made to 1820 PAC, a pro-Collins political action committee.

The Campaign Legal Center first raised concerns about the donation with the Federal Election Commission in February 2020, arguing in a complaint that the contribution appeared to be illegal because the company seemed to be set up for the sole purpose of hiding the true identity of the donor.

A subsequent Civil Beat investigation was able to tie Society for Young Women Scientist and Engineers to Kao and his company, Navatek LLC, which has since been named Martin Defense Group.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, center, poses for a photo with Martin Kao, second from left, during an August 2019 celebration of an $8 million contract award for his company Navatek LLC. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins/2019

Civil Beat found, among other things, that Kao, his fellow executives and their families were major donors to Collins around the same time she was boasting of securing $8 million in federal money for Navatek’s operations in her home state of Maine.

Federal law prohibits federal contractors from donating to political campaigns. It is also against the law to donate to campaigns in someone else’s name.

The search warrant affidavit, which was first reported by Axios, lays out in detail how bank records obtained by the FBI show that Kao and his colleagues, including Clifford Chen and Lawrence Lum Kee, reimbursed family members for funneling money to Collins’ campaign using Navatek’s money.

Investigators also obtained written email and text communications between Kao and Collins’ campaign staffers about his donations, including an exchange that came just one month after Navatek secured the $8 million contract.

“Thanks again for all the support from Sen Collins,” Kao wrote to the Collins campaign finance director. “I’ve been involved in may (sic) tight races in the past and understand last minute ‘needs’ come up. We are here to help anyway we can … financially or whatever.”

“You have already maxed (which we so appreciate), but if you have friends or family members that would be willing to donate please don’t hesitate to send them my way,” the staffer responded.

Kao replied, “Just want to let you know, you’re going to see two more max out donation (sic) of $5,600/each come in later today.”

Annie Clark, a spokesperson for Collins, told Axios that the senator’s campaign “had absolutely no knowledge of anything alleged in the warrant.”

The affidavit reveals additional information about Kao’s creation of the Society of Young Women Scientist and Engineers and its role as an alleged shell company to funnel more money toward the super PAC supporting Collins’ reelection campaign.

In an email exchange with Chen, Kao discussed setting up the LLC “pretty vaguely.”

He appeared to dispose of the discretion later on, however, when he contacted people associated with 1820 PAC, telling them in December 2019 they should expect a check from the Society of Young Women Scientist and Engineers in short order.

“I just received confirmation from our bank that the new account for the Society of Young Women Scientists and Engineers will be up and ready to go by early next week,” Kao wrote. “I will be in touch next week re getting 1820 a check by year end.”

The subject line on the email read, “RE: Navatek/Martin Kao – Thanks!”

Kao is a well-known political donor in Hawaii. He already faces a series of federal charges for allegedly bilking the federal government out of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid.

You can read the full search warrant affidavit here:

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