Amid signs the Department of Justice may ramp up scrutiny of political email fundraising practices, some consultants say they’d welcome expanded regulation.
Contained in the court documents of a case against James Kyle Bell, who operated a scam PAC named the Keep America Great Committee (“KAGC”), were these lines that sparked concern in the digital fundraising community about the tactic of using so-called matches:
“KAGC’s e-mail marketing contained material misrepresentations including promising ‘5X’ matching of any donation to KAGC,” federal prosecutors wrote in their statement of offense filed May 17. “The marketing materials also had the appearance of solicitations from the Trump Campaign containing the official campaign logo.”
What’s more, Bell was able to send this matching solicitation to one list that contained more than 42,000 unique email addresses.
Now, one top campaign finance attorney told C&E practitioners should cease using this language as its tantamount to fraud.
“You can do that if it’s true, but usually fundraising professionals who send out that type of message know it’s not true, and if you intentionally misrepresent something to take somebody’s money away from them that’s going to be fraud,” Jan Baran, now a partner at Beltway firm Holtzman Vogel Baran Torchinsky Josefiak PLLC, told C&E.
“As a practical matter you ought to stop using that language because it’s almost impossible to honor the language — unless they’re saying, ‘look, we’ve got a contributor who’s promised to donate $5,000 and if you’re one of the people in the next hour to give us fifty bucks, this guy will match that contribution.’”
Baran, who has been a part of high-profile campaign finance cases such as McConnell v. FEC and Citizens United, added: “I think that the increased activity of Justice Department prosecutors should be a concern for all professionals. This is just the latest manifestation of a trend that started three years ago.”
Some fundraising consultants said they welcomed the increased attention from federal prosecutors.
“I hope that they are [looking into political email fundraising] because I think that there is a lot of scamming that is happening in this space both on the Democratic and the Republican side,” said Mike Nellis, CEO and founder at Authentic.
Speaking May 19 during a session of C&E’s CampaignTech at Home virtual conference, Nellis said that typically campaigns aren’t honoring their matching pledge.
“It comes off as deceptive, at least in a lot of the emails that I see, because people believe that there’s one donor or one group of donors who are matching those contributions.
“I’ve only ever heard of one campaign that ever really put in the effort to actually do it that way — beyond that it’s been more just, sort of, stretching the assumption of what their finance teams are doing,” he said.
“Does this industry need to be regulated? Does this industry need a jolt of accountability from the Department of Justice or the feds? I think it does because there’s a lot of things that are running rampant here that might generate donations in the short term, but have long-term consequences. And honestly, they hurt people.”
Sara Cederberg, managing digital strategist at Middle Seat, agreed. “I would support some crack downs on some of those tactics for sure.”
Juliana Dolcimascolo, director of digital advertising at Sapphire Strategies, noted that the tactics are, in some instances, backed up by real matches.
“We definitely get back up for it before we do it,” she said. “It’ll be a large donor … who will well over match what the people are donating.”
On the right, some practitioners also believe fundraisers could see lasting negative impacts by continuing to rely on these tactics.
“Is it a material misrepresentation?” asked Patrick O’Keefe, director of customer success, Anedot. “Clearly [the Department of Justice] thinks it is.”
Carter Kidd, COO of Campaign Solutions, encouraged campaigns and groups to consider other avenues such as asking for donations to distribute yard signs or making soft asks for funds.
“I think the honesty piece does play an important role,” she said during CampaignTech at Home on May 19. “Don’t get wrapped up in the matching, there’s so many different things out there.”
Parks Bennett, CEO of Campaign Inbox, said that the tactic has become so ubiquitous that not employing it can differentiate a digital fundraising program.
“Often times not doing a match might make you stand out because everybody is doing a match — it doesn’t work 100 percent of the time,” he said. “I do agree 1000-percent match is ridiculous, but it does work. Does it wind up hurting all of us in the long run? Maybe. Time will tell.”