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When Asad Gharwal signed the contract, he thought it was the culmination of a true American success story.

Gharwal fled Afghanistan in 1979 and arrived in Minnesota with nothing but his own ambition. Now he was about to prove to the world how far he'd come, on one of its most illustrious stages: the World's Fair scheduled for 2020 in Dubai. He had thrown in his own cash, his hard-fought connections and the business he'd spent decades building to bring the opportunity to life.

But within weeks, it was all lost. The contract was gone and the people who brought him in, allies of then-President Donald Trump, had disappeared, along with $750,000 that two Minnesota investors had given as a "sponsorship fee."

"When you're not corrupt, you get fooled because you're not used to corruption," said Gharwal, 62, who has spent more than a year trying to get back some of what was lost.

Their investment was improperly used to line the pockets of others, according to a civil complaint filed in June by the attorney general for the District of Columbia. It names failed nonprofit Pavilion USA and its founders, alleging they mismanaged the nonprofit and improperly paid themselves more than $360,000.

"When you trust people, sometimes bad things happen," Gharwal said.

Humble beginnings

Gharwal was 20 years old when he fled his home in Afghanistan, which was at war with the Soviet Union. His brother-in-law, a student at the University of Minnesota, was his only connection in the United States.

He and his wife took jobs at the restaurant at Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington, and he worked his way up from dishwasher to waiter. Gharwal used that experience to start his own business — Da Afghan Restaurant in Bloomington — in 1986, emptying all but $100 from his bank account to bring cuisine from Afghanistan to Minnesota.

Business was slow at first. The building was in a challenging location in an industrial corner, and Minnesotans weren't used to the spices, lamb and yogurt sauces Gharwal was serving.

"No one knew Afghan food at that time," said Gharwal. "I had to show customers on the map where Afghanistan was."

But after a few positive local write-ups, customers started showing up. Prominent regulars included airline executives and their friends. Gharwal, who at one point wanted to become a pilot himself, dreamed up a new way to get into the air.

One day, he walked into the office of a Northwest Airlines executive and told him he wanted to cater food on his flights.

After a successful presentation, Gharwal started making hummus and flatbread for some flights. He still operated the restaurant, and he worked all night after it closed to complete the orders on time.

That experience eventually led to the creation of Sky Food, an airline catering company for private planes and events, which also had contracts with airlines such as Sun Country.

"He's very hardworking, the quality of his food is excellent, and he's passionate and diligent," said Jay Salmen, the former CEO of Sun Country Airlines, who brought on Gharwal to serve food on some first-class flights and occasionally at his own personal events.

Gharwal's catering and events eventually became his main focus, and he handed off the restaurant to family members. Catering put him in front of prominent clients such as Prince, the Rolling Stones and even Trump, who attended an event Gharwal catered during the 1992 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

Gharwal still has a photo of himself standing next to Trump and his entourage. At one point during the event, Trump leaned over and asked Gharwal about possibly making food at his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.

"He told me to call him," Gharwal said. "I suppose I never did."

Contracts and questions

Gharwal found himself back in the Trump orbit in 2018, after he reached out to former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to see if he could be connected with someone in the State Department to do more work with his home country, Afghanistan.

Ritchie had a connection in Trump's State Department named Taylor Bush and introduced the two at Gharwal's request. At their first meeting in Washington, Bush brought along his father, Fred, who perked up when he heard that Gharwal worked in catering.

"Oh, I've got a better idea for you," Gharwal recalled Fred Bush telling him.

The elder Bush, a former U.S. representative to the World's Fair in 1992 and failed U.S. ambassador nominee, was now working to raise tens of millions to build the U.S. pavilion at the World's Fair in partnership with the State Department.

He was a founding director of nonprofit Pavilion USA, along with Alan Dunn, a former Commerce Department official who served on Trump's transition team. Gharwal said Fred Bush seemed eager to make him the U.S. food service provider at the pavilion after that first meeting.

"He had official business cards, he was connected to the State Department, I had no reason not to trust him," said Gharwal.

That kicked off months of meetings and work to prepare for the bid. Gharwal dropped nearly $200,000 of his own money to fly himself and a consultant back and forth from Dubai to get ready. Bush repeatedly stressed the need for a $1 million sponsorship fee to Pavilion USA to lock in the contract, Gharwal said, so he brought on two Minnesota investors to help make the bid a reality. Gharwal sold Sky Food, so they started a new company together to focus on the World's Fair.

After negotiating the fee down to $750,000, one of the investors — who confirmed the payments but declined to be named for this story — wired the first payment of $250,000 in December 2018. The second payment came in March 2019.

By April, Gharwal said requests for the final payment were becoming more urgent.

'Ripping people off'

Behind the scenes, Pavilion USA was in turmoil, according to the complaint filed by the D.C. attorney general's office. There were concerns about a push from Fred Bush to be paid as an independent contractor for fundraising services to the nonprofit rather than as an employee.

Several people resigned over that and other issues, and Bush and Dunn fired Pavilion USA CEO Greg Houston, who was raising concerns early on, the complaint says. Bush was paid $200,000 out of the first payment wired from Minnesota, according to the complaint, which alleged he rushed into the agreement "for the sake of ensuring his own immediate compensation."

Ultimately, Bush raised only $1.5 million of his goal for the U.S. pavilion. The complaint states that one day before the third Minnesota payment of $250,000 was wired in April 2019, the State Department canceled its contract with Pavilion USA.

Fred Bush, who didn't initially recognize Gharwal's name when reached briefly by phone, denied that he was involved in the final version of the contract. He declined to respond to further questions.

Dunn did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Gharwal's contract was lost, along with the $750,000 that Minnesota investors had wired to the nonprofit. In the end, another vendor was picked to do food service at the World's Fair, which was rescheduled for October 2021 due to COVID-19.

"The courts and other investigations will successfully unpack the various duties of care Pavilion USA's Board owed to Asad and his investors. I'm nevertheless deeply saddened to hear his American dream turned into a nightmare following Pavilion's collapse," said Houston, who was out as Pavilion USA's CEO before Gharwal's contract was finalized. "We should all lose some sleep over that."

Gharwal and others are pursuing legal action against Bush and Dunn, and he's filed a complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office arguing that Pavilion USA needed to be registered as a nonprofit with the state after soliciting a donation more than $25,000.

He thinks back to his conversations with Bush and assurances that, if they couldn't raise the money, Trump would use leftover inauguration funds to build the pavilion. Gharwal regrets bringing friends and business acquaintances into the deal gone awry, but mostly he wants people to know what happened.

"Now I think, they were just ripping people off in the beginning," said Gharwal.

Even after everything that happened, he still has faith he'll figure something out.

"I am an entrepreneur," he said. "I will make something happen."

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042