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Attorneys general in 4 states looking into online fundraising practices of both major parties

A WinRed court filing included a letter sent on behalf of the attorneys general in four states by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), seen in May, with details of their inquiry.
A WinRed court filing included a letter sent on behalf of the attorneys general in four states by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), seen in May, with details of their inquiry. (Richard Drew/AP)

Attorneys general in four states are looking into the online fundraising practices of both major political parties, according to court documents and a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

The practices being examined include the use of pre-checked boxes that lock in recurring donations from political donors who may not intend to sign up for more than one contribution, according to an April 29 letter included in a court filing Wednesday by WinRed, a fundraising platform for GOP committees and campaigns.

WinRed is asking the U.S. District Court in Minnesota to stop the investigations by the attorneys general of Minnesota, Connecticut, Maryland and New York, arguing that consumer protection statutes that the attorneys general may try to enforce are preempted by federal law.

Identical letters were sent to WinRed and ActBlue, a fundraising platform for Democrats, according to a person familiar with the inquiry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the investigation.

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The letter included in WinRed’s court filing asks the platform to provide a range of information that includes all complaints the company has received from donors in Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota and New York. It was sent on behalf of the attorneys general for those states by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.

“Our offices have significant experience with pre-checked solicitations and other forms of ‘negative option’ marketing to consumers,” the letter said. “We believe that such solicitations can be inherently misleading, and result in consumers making unwanted and unintended purchases.”

The existence of the investigation was reported early Thursday by the Washington Examiner.

The letter came weeks after the New York Times reported that former president Donald Trump’s campaign and WinRed had set up recurring donations by default for online donors in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election. The donations swelled the campaign’s treasury, but also caused complaints to banks and credit card companies to soar, the Times reported.

A statement posted on WinRed’s website accused the attorneys general, all of whom are Democrats, of “exploiting their positions of power for partisan gain and targeting WinRed for fundraising tactics that Democrats themselves pioneered and still use to this day.”

“Only when Republicans began challenging the Democrats’ long-held advantage in online fundraising did these Democrat Attorneys General activate,” WinRed’s statement said.

ActBlue did not respond to an email from The Washington Post late Thursday.

Last month, lawyers for WinRed and the attorneys general sparred in letters over the legality of the inquiry.

“Our offices are committed to protecting all our states’ residents,” deputies in each of the attorneys general offices replied to WinRed’s lawyers in a letter included in the company’s court filing. “Political donors have the right to be safe from fraud and deception, regardless of their political affiliation or the candidates or causes they support.”

ActBlue raised $141 million in April, after coronavirus halted fundraising in second half of March, officials say

Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, said in an email Thursday to The Post that Frosh’s office does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations, but that “if WinRed did not mislead or cheat donors in our state, they have nothing to worry about.”

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a statement that “WinRed is only one of the entities we are investigating. We look forward to working with our sister states to defend our investigations and will continue fighting to protect consumers.”

A spokeswoman for James dismissed any notion that the inquiry was politically motivated.

“The Attorney General’s Office follows the facts of the law wherever they may lead. Politics stop at the door, period,” Delaney Kempner, James’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

Protecting consumers is a job that “falls primarily on the states and knows no political party,” said John Stiles, deputy chief of staff to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. “It’s the Attorney General’s job to protect Minnesotans and enforce those laws, no matter who may break them.”

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