President Trump's inaugural committee has acknowledged that it made errors in a list of donors that it submitted to the Federal Election Commission, according to a report published Tuesday by HuffPost.
That admission followed an unusual crowdsourced reporting project, in which HuffPost reporter Christina Wilkie asked the public to examine more than 1,500 listings of individual donors and their addresses. That effort — along with others from other news organizations — seemed to turn up more than 300 examples where the data seemed not to match reality.
In one case, flagged by the Intercept, a $25,000 donation seemed to be mistakenly attributed to NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, one of the subjects of the movie “Hidden Figures.” In another, spotted by Wilkie's volunteers, an address came from a nonexistent person listed as living in a vacant lot in New Jersey.
Inaugural committee spokesman Alex Stroman told HuffPost that both of those listings were in error. He said the committee would update its report.
“We plan to amend our report to reflect any changes that we have become aware of, including many of those donor records or technical glitches that we have recently become aware of, as is common practice with FEC reporting,” Stroman said, according to HuffPost.
Stroman did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Tuesday.
The Trump inaugural committee is a nonprofit entity, legally separate from the Republican National Committee and Trump's presidential campaign. It was required to report its donors to the government — but not required to report what it spent its money on. The data filed with the FEC last week showed that the inaugural committee raised $107 million, a record sum.
The inaugural committee did not give information about its expenditures. It promised to give any leftover money to charity, but provided no details about what would be donated or when.
Last Thursday, the day after the FEC data was released, Wilkie posted a Google spreadsheet with 1,500 entries — one for each donation that the inaugural committee listed.
The data was “scraped” from Trump inaugural committee filings and put into spreadsheet form by Post data journalist Steven Rich and Andrew Ba Tran of the Connecticut Mirror.
“Let's get digging,” Wilkie wrote on Twitter.
Wilkie asked her Twitter followers to choose individual donations and seek to learn the story behind them. Did the name and address match a real person? If the donor was a shell company, who was behind it? Was the donor a person or company who might lobby the federal government?
Wilkie's effort drew in 1,000 volunteers. She deputized a smaller team, about 20 volunteers, to sift through incoming comments and put them into the spreadsheet.
In about 340 cases, Wilkie said, this volunteer effort found indications that the inaugural committee's data might be wrong.
About 300 of the errors seemed to follow a common pattern: an incoming donation from one person was credited to another.
The likely reason, Wilkie discovered, was a system of digital access codes set up by the Republican Party that allowed people to buy inaugural ball tickets in another person's name. The access codes were mailed to Trump supporters after the election, offering them a chance to buy the tickets.
It worked like this, Wilkie wrote: “The access codes, mailed out in early January, entitled recipients to buy tickets, at $50 each, to the larger of Trump’s two inaugural balls. Within days, a secondary market for the access codes had sprung up, with some people asking their friends for codes, and others buying them on eBay.”
But, Wilkie found, the inaugural committee credited all tickets bought with one person's access code as “donations” from the person to whom the code was mailed.
There were other errors, seemingly unrelated to the ticketing system.
As Wilkie wrote, “that includes a donation of $25,000 that appeared to have been made in the name of Katherine Johnson, a former NASA mathematician who was a character in the biopic 'Hidden Figures.' The listing included an address at NASA headquarters, from which Johnson has been retired for decades. After the donation was first reported by the Intercept, Johnson’s family quickly denied that Johnson had ever made such a donation.”
Stroman told the HuffPost that this address was wrong, and the money actually came from another person.
In another case, Wilkie's sleuths found a $400,000 gift credited to a woman named Isabel T. John. That name turned out to be wrong, and the address listed was a vacant lot. Stroman said that the real donor was a woman named Isabel Tonelli. Her husband's name is John, which may have been the root of the error.
The Tonellis live elsewhere in New Jersey. Stroman told HuffPost that their check came through Citibank, which once had a branch location in the spot where the vacant lot is now.
Paul Seamus Ryan, a campaign-finance expert with the group Common Cause, said that none of these errors revealed so far seemed to indicate major malfeasance.
But Ryan said they indicated sloppiness on the part of the inaugural committee.
“It looks like negligence to me,” Ryan said. “They have the expertise within the Trump team to do this right if they wanted to do this right, if doing this right was a priority. Clearly, getting this right is not a priority.”