By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008; A02
Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign is allowing donors to use largely untraceable prepaid credit cards that could potentially be used to evade limits on how much an individual is legally allowed to give or to mask a contributor's identity, campaign officials confirmed.
Faced with a huge influx of donations over the Internet, the campaign has also chosen not to use basic security measures to prevent potentially illegal or anonymous contributions from flowing into its accounts, aides acknowledged. Instead, the campaign is scrutinizing its books for improper donations after the money has been deposited.
The Obama organization said its extensive review has ensured that the campaign has refunded any improper contributions, and noted that Federal Election Commission rules do not require front-end screening of donations.
In recent weeks, questionable contributions have created headaches for Obama's accounting team as it has tried to explain why campaign finance filings have included itemized donations from individuals using fake names, such as Es Esh or Doodad Pro. Those revelations prompted conservative bloggers to further test Obama's finance vetting by giving money using the kind of prepaid cards that can be bought at a drugstore and cannot be traced to a donor.
The problem with such cards, campaign finance lawyers said, is that they make it impossible to tell whether foreign nationals, donors who have exceeded the limits, government contractors or others who are barred from giving to a federal campaign are making contributions.
"They have opened the floodgates to all this money coming in," said Sean Cairncross, chief counsel to the Republican National Committee. "I think they've made the determination that whatever money they have to refund on the back end doesn't outweigh the benefit of taking all this money upfront."
The Obama campaign has shattered presidential fundraising records, in part by capitalizing on the ease of online giving. Of the $150 million the senator from Illinois raised in September, nearly $100 million came in over the Internet.
Lawyers for the Obama operation said yesterday that their "extensive back-end review" has carefully scrubbed contributions to prevent illegal money from entering the operation's war chest. "I'm pretty sure if I took my error rate and matched it against any other campaign or comparable nonprofit, you'd find we're doing very well," said Robert Bauer, a lawyer for the campaign. "I have not seen the McCain compliance staff ascending to heaven on a cloud."
The Obama team's disclosures came in response to questions from The Washington Post about the case of Mary T. Biskup, a retired insurance manager from Manchester, Mo., who turned up on Obama's FEC reports as having donated $174,800 to the campaign. Contributors are limited to giving $2,300 for the general election.
Biskup, who had scores of Obama contributions attributed to her, said in an interview that she never donated to the candidate. "That's an error," she said. Moreover, she added, her credit card was never billed for the donations, meaning someone appropriated her name and made the contributions with another card.
When asked whether the campaign takes steps to verify whether a donor's name matches the name on the credit card used to make a payment, Obama's campaign replied in an e-mail: "Name-matching is not a standard check conducted or made available in the credit card processing industry. We believe Visa and MasterCard do not even have the ability to do this.
"Instead, the campaign does a rigorous comprehensive analysis of online contributions on the back end of the transaction to determine whether a contribution is legitimate."
Juan Proaño, whose technology firm handled online contributions for John Edwards's presidential primary campaign, and for John F. Kerry's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee in 2004, said it is possible to require donors' names and addresses to match those on their credit card accounts. But, he said, some campaigns are reluctant to impose that extra layer of security.
"Honestly, you want to have the least amount of hurdles in processing contributions quickly," Proaño said.
Sen. John McCain's campaign has also had questionable donations slip through.
Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's communication's director, said that "no organization can fully insulate itself from these problems. The McCain campaign has accepted contributions from fraudulent contributors like 'A for You,' 'Adorable Manabat,' 'The Gun Shop,' and 'Jesus II' and hundreds of anonymous donors."
But R. Rebecca Donatelli, who handles online contributions for the McCain operation and the RNC, said security measures have been standard in the GOP nominee's fundraising efforts throughout the campaign. She said she was "flabbergasted" to learn that the Obama campaign accepts prepaid cards.
"Yes, a gift card would go through the same process as a regular credit card and be subject to our same back-end review," the Obama campaign said in its response to questions about the use of such cards.
Campaign finance lawyers said there is a long history of debate within the FEC about how to ensure that donors use their own credit cards.
Election lawyer Brett Kappel said the FEC has never grappled with the question of cash cards. "The whole system is set up for them to accept the payment, then determine whether it is legal or not. And if it's not, send it back. That's what the statute requires," he said.
More from the Washington Post