By Tom Bergin and Mark Hosenball
March 2, LONDON (Reuters) - A Credit Suisse executive set off an email chain seeking donations from subordinates for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that ended up in the hands of non-U.S. citizens, prompting concerns that it could violate laws barring foreign contributions, according to bank sources.
The email seeking support for a Romney fundraising breakfast later made its way from New York to the bank's London office, where recipients -- including some who were not U.S. citizens -- were upset by the solicitation, the sources said.
U.S. federal election laws prohibit contributions from foreign nationals.
The episode underscored the heightened political involvement of some top Credit Suisse officials, who are supporting Romney's campaign, the sources said. Eric Varvel, a Mormon who is CEO of Credit Suisse's investment banking operations, is a contributor to Romney's campaign and gave $100,000 to a SuperPAC that supports Romney, campaign finance records show.
Romney has strong support in the financial sector. Anthony Corrado, an election law expert and government professor at Colby College in Maine, said that U.S. candidates increasingly seek donations from Americans overseas.
He noted that it is legal for political campaigns to circulate fundraising pitches to American citizens working for foreign companies overseas. But election laws make "very clear" the prohibition on taking contributions from foreign nationals, which was recently affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
Internal policies at Credit Suisse also restrict managers from soliciting political money from subordinates below the managing director level or using company email for political purposes.
The November 23 email was sent by the Romney campaign to Brian Chin, head of securitized products in the bank's investment unit, and to Albert Sohn, Chin's outgoing predecessor. Both executives have donated to Romney's campaign.
Chin then sent the email to subordinates in the United States, one source close to Chin said. It subsequently was sent to some London staffers, but bank sources said they do not know who sent it. Chin did not respond to phone calls from Reuters.
Chin's message described how recipients were under "no pressure" to contribute, but some employees said they felt uncomfortable since Chin helped determine their discretionary bonuses, the sources said.
Credit Suisse declined to answer questions. In a statement, the bank said that its "internal policies impose certain restrictions on U.S. employees' political activities in the workplace ... We handle any potential violations on a case-by-case basis and treat any issues as an internal personnel matter."
The Romney campaign said in a statement that it "complies with all the laws and regulations regarding campaign fundraising and does not solicit contributions from foreign nationals."
The email chain, which was reviewed by Reuters, shows that a Romney campaign official, whose name is redacted, sent Chin and Sohn the message headed "Eric Varvel invite".
"Eric Varvel asked that I send the attached invite to you to see if you could possibly raise $10,000 from your folks for Mitt Romney's breakfast on December 14 (invite attached)," the message said. "Eric will be introducing Mitt and would be great if you could try to get some folks to attend. Please let me know how I can help."
The message included a request to "please fill-out attached contribution form and send in a check or click on this link to make a secure online credit card contribution." A link to Romney's campaign website was included.
Nine minutes after receiving the message, Chin forwarded the fundraising pitch, adding his own comment.
"this is completely NO PRESSURE at all - but on the off chance anybody actually wants to go to this, i'm prob going with and albert is going to bring. again this is totally volunatary (sic)," he wrote.
One banker said Chin's email originally went out to around 14 recipients in New York, including at least one who was not an American citizen.
It then was forwarded to London staffers, including other non-U.S. citizens, an individual with knowledge said. A bank source said that some Credit Suisse American staffers did contribute to Romney in response to Chin's email.
Individuals at the bank said that Varvel himself was not involved in the email episode.
Emails seeking political contributions were not unusual at Credit Suisse. Varvel also contacted senior investment bankers directly at bank branches around the world seeking donations for the Romney campaign, according to two individuals with knowledge of the solicitations who noted that Varvel was careful to appeal only to U.S. citizens.
Campaign finance records filed with the Federal Election Commission in Washington show that Varvel donated the legal maximum $2,500 to Romney's presidential primary campaign last year and also donated $100,000 to the SuperPAC Restore Our Future, which backs Romney.
Chin and Sohn also contributed the maximum $2500 to Romney's campaign last year. Sohn also did not reply to calls seeking comment.
(Additional reporting by Sarah White in London; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson)