Ten years ago, Jim Campbell took out a mortgage on his house so that he could make a $100,000 investment in a cause he believed in: a high-security fence along the border with Mexico. Campbell figured that amount would pay for 600 feet of fence, following a plan outlined by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. That plan called for an "Israel-style" barricade 14-feet high, topped with razor wire and cameras on the property of an Arizona rancher named John Ladd.
Campbell attended the first construction project.
The first fence was a cattle fence -- short metal poles with five strands of barbed wire. Ladd was happy; it would keep his cattle from wandering into Mexico and Mexican cattle from grazing on his land. But it wasn't what was promised.
So the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps promised to build the real thing on land owned by Richard Hodges. When CNN journalists stopped by after construction, they found a taller, wire-mesh fence -- but that's it.
Campbell sued the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and its leaders, including co-founder Chris Simcox. "It is clear to me now that this fence project was conceived as a grand facade -- a scheme -- to attract endless streams of donations from the public who placed blind faith (as I did) in both the sincerity and trustworthiness of its promoters," he wrote in a letter to his attorney reported by the American Prospect. Simcox told the press that he'd raised $1.6 million for the fence. He'd partnered for fundraising with a group called Declaration Alliance, run by former presidential hopeful Alan Keyes, which reported sending $3.2 million back to Simcox's group. The Prospect figured that 94 cents of every dollar went back to fundraising and consultants.
In 2010, Simcox flirted with a bid for Senate in Arizona, challenging Sen. John McCain. He dropped those plans in favor of a bid by J.D. Hayworth, which was unsuccessful. In 2013, Simcox was charged with child molestation; his trial began last week.
The Campbell-Simcox-Minuteman story is interesting in the moment for a number of reasons, including that building a border wall has long been a relatively easy way to gin up political interest, as the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency has learned. But it was also one of the earlier examples of someone leveraging the Internet, direct mail and political activism to generate a ton of money that appears to have been mostly spent raising more money -- and paying the organization's founders.
In 2010, a new element entered the mix, as the Supreme Court cleared the way for super PACs to raise huge amounts of money that could be spent on independent political expenditures. In short order, a number of groups leveraged the conservative frustration engendered by the tea party movement to create political action committees that raised millions of dollars, much of which was spent on the organizations themselves.
ProPublica reported on a Sacramento-based consulting firm called Russo, Marsh and Associates. The firm created three PACs, in addition to running the well-known organization, Tea Party Express. The PACs solicited money to defeat Democrats over the course of the 2012 cycle, in part by targeting President Obama.
"Of the $9.3 million spent by Our Country Deserves Better, more than $3.8 million went to Russo, Marsh and Associates, employees or others connected to the firm. Of the $3.9 million spent by the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, $2.4 million went to the firm and its associates," ProPublica's Kim Barker reported. "The pro-military Move America Forward Freedom PAC spent almost $143,000. Of that, $92,000 went to the firm and people connected to it. Some of that money went for travel, or for ads funneled through the consultants. But most was for consulting, fundraising fees and administrative help."
There's nothing illegal about this. The Federal Elections Commission even cleared several groups of even more explicit wrongdoing after their activity in the same cycle. That year, a number of groups set up websites that appeared to be supporting Allen West's Florida House bid, but which used little of the money they raised to that end. The groups included disclaimers distancing themselves from the campaign which, though small and not easy to notice, gave them enough cover to avoid censure from the FEC.
Prominent conservative Erick Erickson expressed his frustration about the practice shortly after the cycle.
The professional right has turned a mailing list habit into a mailing list addiction. Like drug addicts wanting one more hit before going straight, they send out one last mail piece demanding money to help Allen West. But now, like going from cocaine to crack, they spam your email inbox too demanding your immediate defense of Allen West, Rand Paul, etc.
Never you mind that Allen West will never see one penny of the money. “We’re building his name identification,” the mailhouse tells you.
Since then, the tactic has continued. In 2013, "Restore America's Voice" raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of which went to fundraising. Another $120,000 was spent on direct mail fees with a firm called American Caging -- which was also the firm that oversaw contributions for the fence-building effort. Last year, the Center for Responsive Politics identified 30 political groups that all shared the same treasurer. Six of the groups on that list raised $2.2 million from April to June of last year -- and paid out a grand total of $1,000 to a political candidate.
The vector for all of this fundraising was once direct mail lists and is now, increasingly, email. Last year, we reported that the Trump campaign had entered a fundraising partnership with the conservative website Newsmax. Newsmax reached out to the owners of other email lists to propose a partnership that it said would be "highly profitable." People on 2012 candidate Herman Cain's email list received a pitch to contribute to Donald Trump; the owner of the list receives a cut of everything that was donated. But that at least finds its way back to the candidate.
Ben Carson's presidential campaign attracted some scrutiny last year for its fundraising practices. His campaign finance reports indicated that Carson raised large amounts of money -- but that much of that money was redirected back to fundraising. The Atlantic spoke with the campaign's Doug Watts, who argued that the spending was necessary for a new candidate to build up a donor list. In other words, they're building his name ID.
Watts left Carson's campaign in November. This month, he reentered the 2016 mix, telling The Hill that his new PAC, meant to support Donald Trump, had already raised $2 million.
Politico reported on Watts's new group as part of an overview of the emergence of ostensibly pro-Trump groups now that the presumptive nominee has given his apparent blessing to external fundraising.
"Some of these groups in a bald-faced way go out and rape and pillage and are more than disingenuous with the people that they’re soliciting for funds, otherwise known as scam PACs," Watts told Politico. "Trump people are particularly vulnerable in that they’ve been sitting on their hands." The report continues: "Watts brushed off as irrelevant the fact that the group’s California chairman, former state senator Tony Strickland, faces a fine for allegedly disguising campaign contributions."
It's a safe bet that, if you want to see a wall built on the border with Mexico, you will be presented with any number of opportunities to contribute to that end between now and November. Some of those opportunities, it's safe to assume, will be focused more on building the bank accounts of political consultants then on the election of Donald Trump.
As Jim Campbell might remind you: Donor beware.