When federal prosecutors charged Jack Abramoff on Thursday with an illicit conspiracy to promote a cryptocurrency, they alleged that the disgraced lobbyist hired writers to help him with his scheme. The indictment did not name names. But new court documents point squarely to an employee of The Daily Caller and other conservative media outlets.
Abramoff, who served almost four years in prison for his wide-ranging Washington influence peddling schemes, found himself in legal hot water again this week for his attempts to promote AML Bitcoin, a supposedly “anti-money laundering” cryptocurrency created by Texan businessman Marcus Andrade. As part of his duties, Abramoff handled promotion for AML Bitcoin and—according to the indictment—secretly arranged payments for writers at several websites to promote the digital coin and its capabilities.
“Abramoff recruited and paid writers to publish and disseminate, under those writers’ names, written articles touting AML Bitcoin specifically, as well as to tout the idea of a cryptocurrency that would be fully compliant with [anti-money-laundering] and [know-your-customer] laws and regulations,” the Abramoff indictment reads. “These articles were published as opinion editorials or ‘op-eds’ on well-known news and financial websites. The recruited writers did not disclose in the published piece that they had been paid by Abramoff or AML Bitcoin to disseminate in the information in the article.”
In a related complaint filed against Andrade and his company, NAC Foundation, SEC attorneys alleged that Abramoff arranged for the publication of articles and even secretly wrote some of them himself, in a bid to exaggerate AML Bitcoin’s technical abilities and fool investors. That complaint also provided some clear breadcrumbs leading back to the Daily Caller as being among the outlets that ran with material paid for by Abramoff and his associates.
As part of their plans to promote AML Bitcoin, Abramoff and Andrade had allegedly cooked up what prosecutors call a “false rejection plan” to claim that the NFL and NBC had refused to air a Super Bowl ad for the coin that mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
In reality, according to the SEC, Andrade and Abramoff never had the $5 million they would need for a Super Bowl ad. The scheme was debunked almost immediately, with NBC telling BuzzFeed that Andrade’s company had never purchased ad time.
Nevertheless, the claims about the Super Bowl ad were picked up by Daily Caller writer Derek Hunter. On Feb. 2, 2018, Hunter wrote an article with the headline: “NFL Rejects Super Bowl Ad Because It Mocks Kim Jong-Un.”
“First the NFL rejected a print ad from a veterans group asking Super Bowl attendees to stand for the national anthem,” Hunter wrote. “Now, the league and NBC, the network broadcasting the game Sunday, have rejected a TV ad from AML BitCoin for being ‘too political,’ according to the company.
That article is mentioned in the SEC complaint. Its author, who is not named in the complaint, is described as “paid by NAC.”
“Another author paid by NAC published an article titled ‘NFL Rejects Super Bowl Ad Because It Mocks Kim Jong-Un’ which stated that ‘the league and NBC, the network broadcasting the game Sunday, have rejected a TV ad from AML BitCoin for being ‘too political’ according to the company,” the complaint reads.
The complaint notes that the author of the article, along with another writer at another publication, never “disclosed that they had been paid to tout AML BitCoin.”
The only article online that matches the SEC’s description of the body, publication date, and headline of the story was Hunter’s article published by the Daily Caller. Hunter also wrote an article about AML Bitcoin in 2017, claiming that “sources on the Hill” said lawmakers were evaluating the cryptocurrency’s anti-money laundering abilities. That article is not mentioned in court papers.
In emails with The Daily Beast, Hunter denied that he was secretly receiving money for any articles, including the Super Bowl ad story.
“I got a letter and wrote a post because it was easy and I thought it would get clicks, and I'm paid by the [Daily Caller] per click,” Hunter wrote. “Period.”
Hunter is a one-time press secretary for the late former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who received $140,000 in contributions from Abramoff’s associates and clients but was never charged in the federal probe of Abramoff’s influence peddling schemes. Hunter told The Daily Beast he had had no contact with Abramoff after interviewing him for a radio show in 2016.
“I've never been paid by anyone to write anything,” Hunter wrote in an email. “I can't be more clear than that. It was a post about a Super Bowl ad, they're everywhere. Maybe whoever was just taking credit for things they didn't do, I have no idea.”
Daily Caller editor-in-chief Geoffrey Ingersoll told The Daily Beast he was just learning about the allegations against Hunter, but said that any Daily Caller writer secretly paid to write an article would be fired.
“First time we've heard of this, we have to investigate before taking action,” Ingersoll wrote. “But if Derek or anyone on our staff got paid to place an article, it would result in immediate dismissal.”
Abramoff didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Super Bowl story isn’t the only article prosecutors claim was secretly paid for by Abramoff and his associates. Much of the SEC complaint focuses on articles that appeared to have been written by Peter J. Ferrara, a senior fellow at the conservative Heartland Institute. Prosecutors allege that Abramoff and Andrade paid for positive articles in 2017 and 2018 that match the description of articles Ferrara wrote about AML Bitcoin for The American Spectator, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Washington Times.
In 2017, for example, SEC lawyers allege that Abramoff and Andrade paid a writer to exaggerate the significance of a meeting between AML Bitcoin’s promoters and Panama Canal officials in an attempt to suggest the digital coin was on the verge of being adopted in Panama.
“Abramoff arranged for NAC to compensate an author, who did not disclose that he was being paid by NAC, to publish an article on September 20, 2017 stating that NAC had ‘commenced groundbreaking discussions with the Panama Maritime Authority to use AML BitCoin in their payment structures,’” the SEC complaint reads.
That publication date and quote matches a commentary piece bearing Ferrara’s byline that appeared in Investor’s Business Daily.
Ferrara’s articles appear again in the complaint, when SEC lawyers say Andrade paid an author to write an article playing up a meeting with San Francisco port officials.
“The same author wrote in an October 3, 2017 article that ‘AML BitCoin has already made inroads in so many places where old Bitcoin would never be welcome. Such as the Port of San Francisco…’ He repeated the same statements in a February 2, 2018 article.”
Those quotes and publication dates match articles bearing Ferrara’s byline published on Oct. 3, 2017 in the Washington Times and on Feb. 2, 2018 by the American Spectator.
Ferrara didn’t respond to a request for comment. But he has been accused of taking money to promote an Abramoff client before. In 2005, Ferrara admitted to taking money from Abramoff in exchange for articles, telling a reporter, "I do that all the time.”
Washington Times executive editor Christopher Dolan told The Daily Beast that the paper had not realized that Ferrara was allegedly receiving money for his op-ed about AML Bitcoin that ran in the Times, and that the paper does not allow contributors to be secretly paid for articles.
Investor’s Business Daily didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In an email to The Daily Beast, American Spectator publisher Melissa Mackenzie said the website doesn’t allow contributors to accept payment for placing articles.
“We do not publish advertorials nor do we accept paid links,” Mackenzie wrote. “We cannot, of course, know if a writer is misrepresenting their work to us. Should we find out that the writer has violated this policy, we no longer carry their work.”
An executive editor at the American Spectator “was shocked to be informed” about the allegations that Ferrara received money for his article, according to Mackenzie.