New documents show Kanye West’s doomed White House campaign—styled as an “independent” third-party effort—appears to have disguised potentially millions of dollars in services it received from a secretive network of Republican Party operatives, including advisers to the GOP elite and a managing partner at one of the top conservative political firms in the country.
Potentially even more alarming? The Kanye 2020 campaign committee did not even report paying some of these advisers, and used an odd abbreviation for another—moves which campaign finance experts say appear designed to mask the association between known GOP operatives and the campaign, and could constitute a violation of federal laws.
At the heart of Kanye’s political operation was Holtzman Vogel, one of the most powerful and well-connected law firms serving major Republican political and nonprofit organizations today. And weaved throughout his campaign, whether the multi-platinum rapper realized it or not, were Republican operatives who may have been less interested in seeing a President West than in re-electing President Donald Trump.
Paul S. Ryan, vice president of government watchdog Common Cause, called the revelations “a big deal.”
“The importance of disclosure in this matter can’t be overstated,” Ryan told The Daily Beast. “It’s no secret that Kanye West’s candidacy would have a spoiler effect, siphoning votes from Democrat Joe Biden. Voters had a right to know that a high-powered Republican lawyer was providing legal services to Kanye—and federal law requires disclosure of such legal work.”
Federal disclosures also show the campaign enlisted legal services from an array of firms with links to Trump and the Republican Party—including leading voter fraud conspiracy theorists and more than a half-dozen legal practices which went on to push baseless election fraud lawsuits on behalf of Trump or the GOP.
In fact, Holtzman Vogel played key roles in those efforts. They represented Trump in a Pennsylvania lawsuit in late September, while advising the West presidential campaign—advice which at one point included Pennsylvania ballot strategy. The firm is also tied to the Honest Elections Project, which has been involved with voter-suppression efforts.
The former “Birthday Party” contender’s campaign even paid roughly $60,000 to one of those firms—Minnesota-based Mohrman Kaardal—in early December, when it filed a baseless election fraud lawsuit. The suit was ultimately rejected with such vigor that it nearly cost the attorneys their license to practice. That outfit worked with another election challenging group, the Amistad Project, a function of Thomas More Society, which employed Trump attorney and Rudy Giuliani protégée Jenna Ellis. Kanye 2020 retained the firm within days of the Amistad Project’s August launch.
The nature of these hidden connections is obviously complex. And experts say that appears to be the point. Any effort to untangle them will, unfortunately, reflect that. But they say that the red flags—including efforts to cloud disclosures, and Republican operatives exploiting a spoiler candidate—appear to be there.
The Daily Beast shared the court filings and FEC data with a number of government watchdog groups, who all concluded that the campaign and operatives appear to have for one reason or another shielded their connections. The groups found this troubling, and noted that without the documentation in the lawsuit—a breach-of-contract claim which a former campaign vendor filed this spring in Texas state court—the lack of transparency would have kept some of the connections secret.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reviewed hundreds of campaign communications in court records, as well as Kanye 2020’s FEC filings. Communications director Jordan Libowitz concluded that the campaign bookkeeping was a “disaster,” despite the expert guidance from Holtzman Vogel, and the documents are “enough to raise an eyebrow and a red flag or two.”
“This was absolutely amateur hour. And his campaign paid a lot of money for those results,” Libowitz said.
He continued, “It’s very clear that the whole point behind Kanye’s campaign was to try to re-elect Donald Trump. Whether that was a goal of Kanye is another issue. But he was clearly seen as a way to steal potential votes from Biden.”
Multiple people connected to the campaign, including some of the campaign’s contracted lawyers, had a similar assessment. Some said that messaging decisions had to first go through secretive political “hands.” Others indicated that their involvement had been solicited by known Republican political operatives, though when pressed they all declined to name names. All of them also acknowledged an apparently close relationship between West and top Trump aide Jared Kushner, who held meetings with West at his Wyoming ranch just ahead of his campaign announcement, drawing speculation that the campaigns were coordinating.
One campaign lawyer, Arizona-based attorney Tim La Sota—who has filed election challenges—told The Daily Beast that while West “seemed to be a sincere candidate,” political operatives understand that an “unrealistic prospect of winning doesn’t mean you can’t influence things.”
“I can tell you that he did not seek me out. Somebody else did,” La Sota said.
While it’s unclear just how West, ostensibly running as an independent, managed to connect almost exclusively with Republican firms—many of which had direct connections to Trump himself—his efforts were quite clearly in the hands of experienced conservatives.
There is one major exception, however. The progressive firm Millennial Strategies was one of Kanye’s largest 2020 vendors, and it’s unclear if that was a ploy to give Kanye’s campaign the air of true independence, or just a true exception.
Otherwise, Kanye’s campaign seems to have been loaded with Republican operatives.
At, or at least near, the top of the campaign’s chain was sitting GOP Virginia state senator and veteran political operative Jill Vogel—managing partner at Holtzman Vogel, a heavyweight in the world of conservative politics and dark money groups.
Vogel’s campaign work is made clear in months of email and text communications revealed in a multimillion-dollar breach-of-contract lawsuit targeting the West campaign and consultants, first filed this spring in Texas state court and reviewed by The Daily Beast.
The suit, brought by former campaign subvendor SeedX, alleges the company never got paid for months of campaign work, including building and maintaining the website and merch sales, which are counted for campaign purposes as donations. SeedX backs up those allegations with hundreds of pages of communications with campaign officials and contractors, indicating it engaged in several months of campaign work.
SeedX alleges that because the campaign did not pay them, their work would qualify as either a loan or an in-kind contribution—which would have exceeded limits. However, the campaign failed to acknowledge either in their filings.
The case got kicked up to federal court in the Western District of Texas, where a judge dismissed it on Nov. 30, citing lack of jurisdiction—in other words, SeedX filed the lawsuit in the wrong place. The court did not take up the merits of the case, which was closed before it reached the discovery stage, when subpoenas could be issued. A person with direct knowledge told The Daily Beast that the plaintiffs remain confident, and a new lawsuit will likely be filed again soon.
The documents also happen to show that Vogel advised the campaign regarding legal and compliance matters starting as far back as August 2020. The issues ranged from website language and disclaimers to fundraising advice and ballot access rules.
“She is a name that comes up a lot when you’re looking at right-wing money operations in general, tied to a lot of major players,” Libowitz explained. “She and her firm [Holtzman Vogel] have ties to people like [top conservative fundraiser] Leonard Leo, just really big Republican money.”
Libowitz said Vogel may have wanted to keep her name off of filings to minimize “any embarrassment that may come with being publicly affiliated with the trainwreck that was the Kanye campaign,” but added that “it’s also likely that she did not want people to know that a Republican operative was behind his campaign.”
Two people involved with the campaign identified Vogel, whose husband is D.C. lobbyist Alex Vogel, as a key player. One person told The Daily Beast that Jill Vogel was “basically behind it all,” and had been a presence in the campaign since at least last July, when right-leaning lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs was advising the campaign. A third source confirmed her involvement but was unsure of her exact role.
Michael McKeon, a partner at Mercury, confirmed to The Daily Beast that he had worked with Kanye 2020 in its early stages. His role, he said, was to “connect the campaign with various people, groups.” Asked in a follow-up if he had connected the campaign with Vogel, McKeon referred the question to the campaign and ended the conversation.
An email sent to the campaign’s listed email contact bounced back. West’s publicist, Pierre Rougier, did not reply to a detailed request for comment.
But watchdogs strongly doubted that Kanye’s campaign just happened to end up with this many GOP operatives on its team.
“You’re not just going to trip and find your way into these Republican circles,” Libowitz observed. “BakerHostetler works for the Republican National Committee,” he said, referencing a New York firm which Kanye 2020 paid $152,000 a full month after he lost the election.
“So many of these firms work for major Republican organizations, and they are not doing this for him out of the kindness of their hearts,” he added. It appears that well over a dozen Kanye 2020 firms have deep connections in national and state Republican politics, and that many of them pushed false claims of a fraudulent or fatally flawed election. “It’s pretty clear Kanye was a GOP plant, whether he knew it or not.”
Despite the evidence of Vogel’s campaign work in the court records, none of Kanye 2020’s FEC filings show any payments to her or her firm. (Neither Mercury nor McKeon appear, either.) However, Vogel associates herself directly with the campaign in multiple emails found in the court filings, and other campaign vendors identify her several in texts and emails as the “campaign lawyer.”
In one late January email obtained by The Daily Beast, Vogel identifies herself to SeedX as “the attorney for the Kanye West 2020 presidential campaign.” (Emails show she had been in touch with SeedX in this capacity for months.) She then says she has been “authorized” to offer SeedX $20,000 to buy the campaign website, and hints that the vendor—who did months of work but apparently never got paid—could face possible civil litigation if they do not set aside their demands.
SeedX rejected the $20,000 and sued for $2 million, arguing it matched the rates of other vendors.
Attorneys are allowed to volunteer compliance services to campaigns. However, federal law requires campaigns to report what the cost of that work would be. They must also report the name of the person who performed the work. Court exhibits show Vogel used her official firm email account while advising on Kanye 2020.
Libowitz said it is unclear why Vogel, an expert who advised Kanye 2020 on the many nuances of FEC laws—at one point consulting another firm partner, whom she identifies as a former FEC commissioner—decided that she herself did not need to appear in the filings. The matter, he said, raises questions.
“If an outside group was paying for them, that needs to be disclosed as an in-kind contribution, and if that’s the case you would immediately run up against limits,” Libowitz said.
Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, who reviewed the court and FEC records, also questioned the rationale.
“Voters have a right to know where political money is coming from and where it is going. But the Kanye 2020 campaign’s FEC reports didn’t give much insight into who was actually working for the candidate,” Fischer said.
He noted that while the FEC doesn’t always require campaigns to separately disclose payments to subcontractors, the “subvendor loophole can’t explain all of the giant holes in the Kanye campaign’s FEC reports.”
Ryan, of Common Cause, noted that “if Holtzman Vogel’s legal services extended beyond compliance with federal campaign finance law to other matters, then the value of those services would constitute a potentially-illegal contribution to Kanye’s campaign.”
To that point, one of Vogel’s emails includes a lengthy discussion of ballot requirements in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, which would not appear on its face to be related in any way to FEC compliance.
“There are several red flags here that warrant FEC scrutiny,” Ryan said.
Interestingly enough, some Vogel money did flow the other way: Her teenage son appears to have donated $180 to Kanye 2020 in October, FEC records show, likely in exchange for any of a number of combinations of Yeezy election swag.
Vogel did not reply to several specific questions about her involvement with the campaign.
Another key operative attached to West’s White House bid, whose involvement had attracted media attention last year, was Nathan Sproul. One of Sproul’s firms was at the center of a voter fraud case in 2012, and another, Lincoln Strategy Group, has since 2008 pulled in more than $10 million in federal political consulting services, according to FEC records—including $600,000 from the Trump campaign weeks ahead of the 2016 election.
Like Vogel, Lincoln Strategy was not reported to have received any money from Kanye 2020. However, one of its principals, longtime GOP political consultant Dan Centinello—who appears regularly on Kanye 2020 text and email chains—contributed $260 to the campaign in October.
Centinello and Sproul are just two among a number of Lincoln Strategy employees who advised West’s campaign, using official Lincoln Strategy Group email addresses, according to emails and text messages found in court exhibits.
And while Lincoln Strategy did not get paid by Kanye 2020, the campaign did pour about $4.8 million into a firm called “Fortified Consulting.”
At this point, you may not be stunned to learn that “Fortified Consulting” has almost no public footprint. However, it shares an Arizona address with Lincoln Strategy Group, and has been identified in multiple news reports as belonging to Sproul.
No other political committee has ever paid Fortified Consulting.
Over the four months that the firm was raking in its $4.8 million from the “independent” West, its apparent alter ego, Lincoln Strategy Group, was working openly with mainstream Republican clients—including Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), and the Republican Party of Texas. Those clients paid Lincoln a combined $1.1 million over that period.
At one point, Lincoln Strategy employees even discuss buying out West’s campaign merch store after the election—which would be prohibited by law. (The store had problems of its own.)
But legal filings show Sproul, who did not respond to requests for comment, was merely a small visible sprout off the campaign’s far deeper and unseen Republican roots.
Beginning in August 2020, and stretching through September of this year, Kanye 2020 made nine payments totalling $692,057.35 for “compliance” and “accounting” to a Texas entity called “GSF Inc.” That eye-popping figure came after the hip-hop mogul had lost any hope of attaining the nation’s highest office and, for context, it exceeds what former Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) splashed out for compliance services during his entire failed bid for re-election.
But business records show that no such company as “GSF Inc.” exists in the Lone Star State, and the FEC database shows no other political committee has ever hired a firm by that name.
However, the database does show that an array of right-wing candidates and committees have paid a company sharing the same address in the suburbs just north of Austin: Grand Slam Finance, Inc. And the Texas lawsuit documents Grand Slam Finance’s extensive involvement in the Kanye 2020 campaign—as well as illustrates how the firm appears to have both facilitated and potentially concealed connections between West’s campaign and the Republican operative network more broadly.
Texas records show that Grand Slam Finance was originally the creation of accountant Russell Anderson, who handled the books for disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom Delay’s political action committee.
But Anderson told The Daily Beast that he sold his stake in Grand Slam Finance to his partner Deanna Hayes “three or four years” ago.
The Texas suit includes among its exhibits emails the plaintiff exchanged with Hayes—identified as an “associate” of Vogel and her firm—as well as correspondence between Hayes and campaign treasurer Andre Bodiford regarding banking information.
“I was hoping we could keep andre out of it but apparently Deanna [Hayes] doesn’t have everything,” Centinello wrote in one message.
It is unclear why Centinello, a self-professed veteran of major multimillion-dollar campaigns, wanted to leave the West campaign’s treasurer out of the loop here.
Notably, the West campaign’s nine payments to GSF add up to about $250,000 more than the firm’s combined federal compliance income over the last decade.
Ryan called it “strange” to see a consultant “suddenly banking way more than it previously has for services, all from one campaign.” And Ryan and Libowitz both made note of West’s status as an “amateur candidate,” and a billionaire who largely funded his own campaign.
Hayes did not reply to requests for comment. However, days after The Daily Beast first contacted her, she sent an apparently errant text, with a reference to a “Jill”—likely Vogel.
“This reporter has been calling and texting. I haven’t answered or responded nor will I. No idea how he got my name or what he wants but now he’s calling my husband. I let Jill know yesterday just so she’s aware,” the text message read. Neither Hayes nor Vogel replied to questions about this text message.
Public records indicate Hayes’ history with Vogel run through another pair of leading GOP apparatchiks.
Lobbying documents in Hawaii show Hayes and Grand Slam working for the Crosby Ottenhoff Group. This firm belongs to former RNC Chief Finance Officer Caleb Crosby and Benjamin Ottenhoff, the treasurer for the GOP’s digital fundraising juggernaut WinRed.
Neither Crosby nor Ottenhoff responded to questions about whether they had also worked for the West campaign. Crosby has a particularly close relationship with Hayes and with Holtzman Vogel: Hayes incorporated his personal firm, CFC Consulting, which also works for marquee Republican names, and handled the books at a conservative nonprofit where Crosby worked as treasurer.
Grand Slam Finance also formerly managed compliance at another institution where Crosby served as fiduciary: Karl Rove’s Super PAC American Crossroads.
The law firm for American Crossroads? Holtzman Vogel PLLC, according to FEC records.
The same is true for the Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConnell-boosting PAC, which also lists Crosby as its treasurer. In fact, the Senate Leadership Fund is only one of several entities based out of Holtzman Vogel’s Virginia law office which feature Crosby as an officer.
West’s self-described “spiritual adviser,” music manager John Boyd—who the campaign paid $25,000 for “political strategy consulting—was adamant that nobody, Republican or Democrat, ever manipulated the hip-hop star. However, he admitted that his campaign was highly disorganized and the candidate was never in full control of his own operations.
“He had companies, individuals working for him, I don’t even know if he knew what they were doing that deeply. That’s my personal view,” Boyd told The Daily Beast. “There were definitely agendas out there that perhaps he didn’t have full control over.”
Boyd declined to give names or provide further details.
Colorado-based attorney Mario Nicolais, who had scrutinized the West campaign’s ballot petition activity in Wisconsin last August, told The Daily Beast that the GOP’s targeting West—who, according to his then-wife Kim Kardashian, had been contending with mental health struggles—was “about as bottom-of-the-barrel moral turpitude as you can be, in my opinion. Just sleazy, low-rent cashing in.”
Nicolais added that it was “important to follow up on these stories,” even a year later, because they could “invite bigger problems in the future, similar tactics only on a larger scale.”
“It turns out that this was not even a conspiracy theory,” he said. “It was literally documented.”