Say you’re a Donald Trump voter and, with just six more rotations around the sun until Election Day, you want to contribute your hard-earned money to a political action committee working on behalf of your candidate.
Trump Victory/Make America Great Again sounds good, since you want both of those things, but then Make America Great sounds all right, too, and slightly more to the point. And then there’s Official Let’s Make America Great Again Campaign Corporation, which has official right there in its name, lest you had any doubts.
You’d probably never suspect that these similarly titled organizations do precious little to support the Republican presidential nominee, or that they may feel legally entitled to rip you off, as PACs fall within a gray area of campaign-finance regulations.
The so-called scam PAC predates Trump’s candidacy, but they have accumulated with fervor in his orbit over the last 16 months. As the candidate himself finds ways to profit from his political movement, buying his own books at retail cost and frequenting his own businesses with campaign funds, an inordinate number of his fans have apparently decided to get in on the action. Where there’s a huckster politician promising to do right by the working man, it seems, more hucksters will follow.
A review of the Federal Election Commission filings of several PACs that claim to work on behalf of The Donald revealed that they appear to do almost nothing at all.
“Scammers go wherever they think they can make money,” one veteran campaign-finance lawyer who asked to remain anonymous told The Daily Beast. “So there are folks who are out there saying, ‘Well, Trump’s got this following of not very bright folks, so, what the heck, we’ll make some money.’”
Trumpvictory.org is the digital home of the Oxnard, California-based Trump Victory/Make America Great Again PAC, organized in March by its treasurer, Glen Rogers, who did not immediately respond to an interview request.
“We are a group of volunteers from all walks of life who are looking for real change in leadership that we believe Donald Trump can deliver,” the website reads. “We donate our time, expertise, and money to spread the word about Donald Trump through online marketing campaigns, direct mail, and organized events.”
Who exactly “we” is, it’s not clear, because there are no organization members listed. A “Discuss” button under the “Get Involved” tab directs to a pro-Trump Reddit page, and “Events” directs you to the official campaign schedule.
The “Donate Now” button sure works, though, providing you the option to give $50, $100, $250, $500, or an amount of your choosing, “One Time,” “Weekly,” “Every 2 Weeks,” “Monthly,” “Quarterly,” “Semi-Annually,” or “Annually.”
The donation rules and agreement then make a vague promise: “Your contribution will be used in connection with a federal election.”
Trump Victory/Make America Great Again has raised just north of $150,000 since its inception, most of it in small donations, from a truck driver, a farmer, a painter, a doctor, an architect, several homemakers, and 18 retired people.
And here’s how the PAC spent that money in October, the final stretch of the campaign: $3,000 to Nestor Garcia of Coral Gables, Florida, for “Professional Fees”; $14,200 to New Horizon Consulting LLC, a company filed on July 6 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, about which there is no other public information, also for “Professional Fees”; $929 to Qgiv, the service through which the PAC accepts online donations; and $215 to Upwork for “Computer and Internet Expenses.”
The only effort to Make America Great Again? One hundred and three dollars to Google for “Advertising and Promotions.”
Scam PACs took off with the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009, but regulatory oversights have prevented their eradication. The FEC only addresses fraudulent solicitations from campaigns or political parties, claiming it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to go after people who purport to be neither. And the Federal Trade Commission, which handles consumer protection, says it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to go after political malfeasance.
In 2012, Allen West, the former congressman and Tea Party star, was reportedly “plagued” by scam PACs, at least eight of them, which sought to use his name to fleece his fans. Sarah Palin, too, was used to trick conservatives into doling out their money and information to shady entities. Erick Erickson, the conservative radio host, in 2015 called scam PACs “a blight on the GOP.” He wrote, “This is becoming a serious issue. One of the dangers of the conversation is deciding what is and is not a Scam PAC, but I would say the starting point is this—if you’re raising money in someone’s name without their consent and then not spending the money to help that person, I’d think that would qualify.”
A May report by Politico found that, of the more than two dozen unauthorized groups that had by that point formed to back Trump’s candidacy, “only six” had actually spent money to help him. That same month, Roger Stone, Trump’s volatile longtime aide, called Great America PAC, of which former Ronald Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins is chairman, a “scam.” Just last week, the group mistakenly published the credit-card information of its donors online.
“People out there who are getting involved in this election, it’s a very emotional election, and they could easily get sucked into giving money to these PACs,” the campaign-finance expert said. “It’s a very scary thing for consumers.”
“What really has to happen is the Justice Department has to go after some of these scammers on plain old ordinary wire and mail fraud,” the expert said. “If they bust one of them for doing that, then the other ones will go, ‘OK, the jig is up.’”
Make America Great, another PAC, became an official entity in October 2015. The treasurer, Roy Jensen, who did not immediately respond to an email sent to the address listed, filed the paperwork from Lancaster, California. The group has no website and has never filed any reports with the FEC. The FEC has sent Jensen four notices about his failure to file, evidently to no avail.
And Official Let’s Make America Great Again Campaign Corporation, filed with the FEC from Lake Mary, Florida, in August 2016, never filed its necessary paperwork. The treasurer is listed as Jennifer Spalding, but the contact is listed as Michael Todd, someone with an email address connected to a website that advertises time shares in the Bahamas, Las Vegas, and Mexico. A message left on the answering machine connected to the phone number on the paperwork was not immediately returned.
“There’s a very large number of super PACs that have registered that seem to be offering themselves as using [Trump’s] name, or some variation of his name, or the Make America Great Again slogan,” the campaign-finance expert said. “I think Trump’s got the record for this cycle in terms of the number.”
Of course, the greatest trick pulled on Trump supporters may be by the candidate himself, who’s spent millions of grassroots dollars patronizing his own companies, for private-plane airfare, rent, food, and hotel stays, throughout his campaign. The promise to make America rich again, it seems, starts at the top—and extends to anyone with the chutzpah to file some FEC paperwork.