A BRIDGE TO SELL

Pro-Trump PAC That Duped Donors in 2016 Is Looking to Cash In Again

Liberty Action Group did little more than raise money, pay its executives, and build an email list. Now it wants to rent out that email list.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

A political group raised millions in 2016 with dubious promises to back Donald Trump’s candidacy. Instead, that PAC, Liberty Action Group, paid massive sums to the people running it, and then quietly closed shop last year.

Now its executives are looking to milk one more financial windfall from the operation they built.

Liberty Action Group recently reached out to conservative groups to gauge their interest in buying or renting the email list it amassed through scores of fundraising emails sent, radio ads aired, and robocalls made during the 2016 campaign. The list is reportedly comprised of roughly half a million names. Building it was one of the few things that the PAC did in 2016 beyond raising money from donors and paying its own staffers six-figure sums.

Those staffers aren’t particularly eager to discuss why they are now shopping around the email list that they built. Reached for comment, one of the group’s consultants accused The Daily Beast of harassment and threatened to file a libel lawsuit.

The email list solicitation shows how groups commonly known as “scam PACs”—political outfits that promise to back a popular candidate but do little but collect checks and pass money along to their staffers and vendors—continue tapping the financial well of unwitting supporters after the campaign season is over. Those who donated to Liberty Action Group in 2016 believing that they were supporting Trump will now likely find themselves solicited by organizations to which the group rents or sells its email list.

News of LAG’s email list sale came by way of a Facebook message from Rob Reyes, who ran Modern Media Group LLC, one of LAG’s top 2016 campaign vendors.

“I am a consultant for a Republican, PRO-Trump PAC that raised $1,000,000+ during general election, one of the top 5 PAC’s during the election,” Reyes wrote to a potential buyer in a message subsequently sent to The Daily Beast. “The PAC members have since decided to pursue ventures outside of politics and they are looking to sell/rent their list of 500,000 records as they are no longer in the industry. This is a very prime, aged list of opt-in Republican donors.”

The value of such an email list that Reyes was shopping can vary. But one industry expert told The Daily Beast that, based on the state of the market for pro-Trump email lists, it could probably fetch rental rates of between $5,000 and $10,000 per email blast.

After The Daily Beast contacted Reyes to inquire about his offer, he said the email list was “no longer for sale.” He wouldn’t clarify whether that meant it had already been sold, whether it was taken off the market, or whether LAG had opted to rent it out. Reyes said he was “unable to disclose this information due to [a] confidentiality clause.”

Reyes also insisted that he had “no affiliation” with LAG. But according to Federal Election Commission records, LAG paid Reyes’ company, Modern Media Group LLC, more than $460,000 from the PAC’s formation in early 2016 through its termination in April 2017. Asked about those payments and his role in marketing the PAC’s email list, Reyes threatened legal action.

“Pertaining to libel and defamation law, do not harass me,” he wrote.

Reyes wasn’t the only person tied to LAG to rake in large sums of money. The PAC paid more than $60,000 to Josiah Cammer, who, like Reyes, was listed in initial FEC documentation as an LAG point of contact. The group also paid more than $480,000 to Matt Tunstall for consulting services. Tunstall and Reyes are longtime friends. The latter posted a number of pictures on Facebook between 2012 and 2014 showing the two of them traveling to destinations including Barcelona, Montreal, and Antwerp.

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LAG was able to pay those exorbitant consulting fees largely on the back of small-dollar donors. The group mainly brought in contributions of under $200, which is consistent with organizations that solicit money through telemarketing, direct mail, and email fundraising appeals, often under the promise that the funds will support the election of a popular political figure.

LAG’s solicitations, as reported by BuzzFeed News in 2016, pledged that donations would support grassroots organizing in support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But LAG never reported spending any money on get-out-the-vote activities.

It did spend significant sums on “advertising,” as the payments were itemized in FEC filings. But those ads, which aired on popular conservative talk radio programs, were largely appeals for more donations.

“Attention fellow Trump supporters,” one of them declared. “Help Mr. Trump win the presidency by picking up the phone right now and calling 1-800-773-1493 to add your name to pledge to defeat Hillary and elect Donald Trump. Call in the next five minutes to get your free Trump-Pence sticker.”

When listeners called the number, they were asked for financial contributions.

“It appears that Liberty Action Group’s primary purpose was to siphon money off of grassroots activists with misleading fundraising appeals,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform programs for the Campaign Legal Center, an ethics watchdog group. “Asking for donations to support a get-out-the-vote campaign and using that money for more fundraising is entirely deceptive.”

Such practices even drew the ire of Trump himself, whose campaign publicly rebuked independent political groups fundraising off of his name during the 2016 race. The Trump campaign went so far as to send a cease and desist letter to one group that was asking for donations by dangling the possibility of dinner with Trump even though it was not affiliated in any way with the organization.

The problem is not unique to Trump. Another political group with apparent ties to LAG, Progressive Priorities PAC, made similar asks of the left. “The Progressive Priorities PAC focuses on spreading the Democratic message and values to the people of America,” the group said above the donation button on its now-defunct website. The group initially shared a treasurer with LAG, but Cammer told BuzzFeed in 2016 that he had nothing to do with Progressive Priorities, and had never even heard of the group. In fact, as a later FEC filing revealed, Progressive Priorities had paid Cammer for consulting services two months earlier.

Progressive Priorities raised nearly $400,000 last cycle. Like LAG, the group spent most of its money on consultants, though significantly less appears to have gone to those running the PAC. But neither group spent a dime on independent expenditures, or expenditures in direct support of or opposition to a candidate for federal office.

The common “scam PAC” defense is that fundraising activities themselves constitute de facto advertisements for the candidates they use to solicit contributions. A radio ad that plugs the Trump campaign while asking potential donors to pony up on the campaign’s behalf is in effect promoting that campaign, the argument goes.

But Fischer says that defense is bunk. “Although you can envision a situation where an ad both promotes a candidate and also asks for money, the ads I’ve seen from Liberty Action Group don’t fit,” he said. “Asking for a donation to fund get-out-the-vote efforts does not actually encourage anybody to vote.

“Ultimately,” Fischer added, “what these scam PACs are doing is diverting money from candidates and legitimate causes in order to line the pockets of their dirtbag directors.”