By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza pleaded not guilty on Friday to federal charges that he used straw donors to exceed campaign contributions to a U.S. Senate candidate in 2012.
The candidate, Wendy Long, had unsuccessfully sought the Senate seat of Democratic Kirsten Gillibrand in New York.
D'Souza's defense lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, suggested in New York federal court that the conduct described in D'Souza's indictment does not rise to the level of a crime.
"It's an unusual case," he told U.S. District Judge Richard Berman. "I don't think there's much dispute as to what happened, but why it happened and whether it violated federal election law."
He said he had tried to convince the government not to press charges but was ultimately rebuffed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen said D'Souza had arranged for two individuals, and their spouses, to contribute a total of $20,000 in August 2012 to Long's campaign. He then reimbursed the donors, Cohen said.
At the time, U.S. law capped how much money a person could donate to a political candidate at $5,000 per race, with up to $2,500 allowed for primary campaigns and $2,500 for general election campaigns.
One of the donors lived with D'Souza at the time, Cohen said, while the other worked for him. She did not name them.
Cohen also said Long had told government investigators that D'Souza lied to her about the source of the contributions.
In a statement Brafman released on Thursday, when D'Souza's indictment was first made public, he said D'Souza "did not act with any corrupt or criminal intent whatsoever."
A native of Mumbai, India, the 52-year-old D'Souza was a policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and has written a number of bestselling books.
He is also known as a critic of President Barack Obama, and in 2012 directed the film, "2016: Obama's America," that warned of negative consequences if Obama won a second term.
In late 2012, D'Souza resigned his post as president of King's College, a small Christian college in New York City, after admitting that he had become engaged to a woman even though he was legally married, although separated from his wife. He has been an outspoken defender of traditional marriage.
The woman to whom he was engaged, Denise Joseph, contributed $10,000 to Long's campaign on August 30, 2012, according to federal campaign records.
D'Souza was released on a $500,000 bond. His next court date is scheduled for March.
The case is U.S. v. D'Souza, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 14-cr-00034.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone, Toni Reinhold)