Pro-Trump College Group Won’t Tell the Feds What the Hell It’s Doing
The FEC has sent Students for Trump nine letters requesting info on who its donors are and what the group is funding. It has gotten no response.
A political group founded by Trump supporters in college has ignored repeated efforts by federal regulators to collect information on its political activities and financial backers.
Students for Trump, a political action committee founded during the 2016 campaign, conducted social media advocacy and campus organizing around the country in support of President Donald Trump’s campaign, and remains an active PAC today. It’s legally distinct from the Trump campaign itself, but they have coordinated as SFT tried to craft a youth turnout operation on Trump’s behalf.
Despite that activity, Students for Trump has disclosed almost no information to the Federal Election Commission, in an apparent violation of federal laws that require regular reports detailing a political group’s fundraising and expenditures. The FEC has sent the group nine letters since its formation in July 2016 requesting legally-required financial disclosure reports, to no avail.
Asked about those reporting problems, the group blamed its former treasurer.
“As you will see, all records are under John Lambert, who is no longer with SFT and hasn't been with us for some time,” Students for Trump spokesperson Mia Chamberlain told The Daily Beast in an email.
“An FEC filing was officially filed. However, due to certain changes in the past, a request was sent in to nullify the filings,” Chamberlain said. Chamberlain added that Ryan Fournier, the group’s founder and chairman, “is unsure as to why it did not go through as he was not the agent who prepared and sent in the documentation.”
But that explanation baffled Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, an ethics watchdog group. “Sounds like they don’t know what they are doing,” he said after the reading the statement.
Students for Trump began as a social media campaign and officially registered as a political committee about four months before election day. Fournier and his team worked to build support for Trump on the nation’s college campuses with pro-Trump stunts such as The Chalkening.
The group enjoyed the backing of Guido Lombardi, an Italian real estate developer who served as the Trump campaign’s middleman with various prominent figures in right-wing political parties in Europe. Students for Trump’s website previously listed Lombardi as its national director. He did not respond to questions about his involvement with the group.
SFT’s campus activism earned it some media attention during the election, and got Fournier in the door with a number of high level administration and campaign officials. His Instagram account is peppered of photos of him posing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and the president’s son, Eric Trump.
Fournier told Newsweek in 2016 that SFT had more than 5,000 student members at hundreds of chapters in roughly 40 states. Since Trump’s election, he has announced plans to form a new nonprofit group called Generation Onward. But IRS records indicate that group hasn’t received tax exempt status, and its website, which once hosted nothing but a donation page, is now inactive.
Students for Trump, meanwhile, has largely gone dormant since the election. But it remains a registered political committee, bound by FEC reporting requirements.
In fact, the group maintains two duplicative registrations with the FEC, but neither of them has disclosed any information about their respective finances since they were formed in 2016. The FEC has collectively sent those two entities nine “requests for additional information,” or formal notifications that their periodic financial disclosures are inadequate or incomplete.
“The failure to timely file a complete report may result in civil money penalties, an audit
or legal enforcement action,” the FEC notices warn. It does not appear that any such action has been taken to date.
Students for Trump says it hasn’t received any of those letters, according to Chamberlain who also said that SFT “has not collected funds of any sort.” But in 2016, Fournier told Newsweek that SFT was drawing income from merchandise sales. Chamberlain did not respond to questions about that apparent discrepancy.
Chamberlain also said that SFT had not incurred any overhead costs that would need to be reported. “We do not pay a website hosting fee. Additionally, we created and maintain the site ourself. SFT is currently a student-led volunteer program. Any marketing we do is digital which doesn’t involve any costs, including campus organizing,” she wrote.
But SFT’s nationwide organizing campaign during the 2016 election likely had significant expenses in the last few months of the campaign, owing to the travel of its members. Abbie Green, a student at the College of Charleston and SFT’s former national recruitment director, told her college newspaper that she was constantly traveling around the country on the group’s behalf. “I was on the road or in the air almost every weekend first semester campaigning with my team,” Green said last year.
It’s not clear whether Students for Trump covered Green or any other employees’ travel expenses, and Chamberlain didn’t respond to question about the policy.
But those would be among the details that would be disclosed in a periodic FEC disclosure filing, according to Fischer of Campaign Legal Center. And it raises other potential FEC reporting issues. If SFT paid for its volunteers’ travel, it would need to disclose that expenditure. If those volunteers footed the bills themselves, the expenditures would likely count as in-kind contributions to SFT, and would also need to be reported.
“Out-of-pocket costs for travel expenses incurred on behalf of a political committee are considered contributions to that political committee,” Fischer explained in an email. “A person who is volunteering for a candidate or party may spend up to $1,000 of their own money on candidate- or party-related travel expenses without making a contribution, but that exception doesn’t apply to volunteers for PACs.”
Whether or not it is bringing in or spending money, the group needs to file periodic disclosures with the FEC, even if those disclosures list zero income or expenditures. SFT’s explanation for not doing so left much to be desired, Fischer said.
“This is a complete mess and appears to raise a number of FEC violations,” he said.