The potential donation that arrived at an Arizona campaign office Thursday had all the markings of a grass-roots, feel-good politics story — at first.
Two young men, who said their names were Jose Rosales and Ahmahd Sadia, had shown up at the Flagstaff campaign office of Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a Democrat who is running for reelection to represent northern Arizona.
They claimed they were from nearby Northern Arizona University and were eager to volunteer. They had also brought along a jar of small bills and coins — totaling $39.68 — money that they said wanted to donate to O’Halleran’s campaign.
That’s when things grew odd.
A junior staffer who “didn’t realize what was happening” directed the pair to fill out a campaign contribution form. The men mentioned they were with the “Northern Arizona University Communist Party,” according to O’Halleran campaign manager Ryan Mulcahy.
“Once they filled out the forms, they became oddly insistent on getting a receipt for the contributions,” Mulcahy told The Washington Post. “They were told the only way you can get a receipt is [by] email. So they ended up crossing out the email they had written down and writing in another one.”
Meanwhile, as the men were leaving, another staffer came over — and recognized them from social media as being affiliated with the Arizona Republican Party, Mulcahy said. Shortly after the pair left, O’Halleran’s finance director, Lindsay Coleman, drove over to the local Arizona GOP office to return the donation.
Her suspicions were almost immediately confirmed upon entering the GOP office, in an awkward exchange that was captured on video.
“Do you have, um, are there two young Republicans named Ahmad or Jose?” Coleman asked a receptionist.
“I don’t believe so,” someone in the GOP office told her.
“Oh, okay. Well I’m here, because two young gentlemen right here” — at this point Coleman pointed to a man who stepped out from a room in the office — “made this contribution to our campaign--...”
A bearded man at the GOP office pointed at the man and seemed to correct Coleman: “This is Oscar.”
Without missing a beat, Coleman continued: “And Oscar, who gave a donation under the name of Jose...”
The camera panned back to Oscar/Jose, who had abruptly turned back around and reentered the room from which he had emerged moments earlier. The door closed.
Still speaking loudly, Coleman pointed out that it was illegal to falsify contribution information to the Federal Election Commission and said that she would probably be filing a report with the police. Then she called out toward the closed door: “Um, Oscar, I have your cash! And I’d like to return it to you, please!”
Oscar/Jose emerged yet again.
"Yep,” he said.
Coleman handed him an envelope with the attempted campaign donation.
“Here you go, Oscar. Us returning your funds that you just made to our contribution to our campaign under the name of Jose Rosales, claiming to be with ‘NAU Young Communists’ when you are in fact with the NAU Young Republicans and your name is Oscar,” Coleman told him. “I don’t know if you heard me, but it is illegal to falsify donation information to the FEC, so thank you for your support but we cannot accept your funds.”
“Okay, yeah,” Oscar/Jose said, as Coleman walked away, smiling.
O’Halleran’s campaign posted video of the encounter to YouTube on Friday. Mulcahy said he suspects O’Halleran’s opponent, Wendy Rogers, was behind the attempted campaign donation, saying it “fits in particularly well” with her attempts to paint O’Halleran as a far-left extremist.
Polls show the race is leaning slightly in favor of O’Halleran, who was first elected to the office in 2016.
Rogers’s campaign has denied involvement in the attempted donation, calling it “juvenile.”
“We are focused on defeating Tom O’Halleran and the Democrats this November and don’t have time for juvenile pranks,” Wendy Rogers’s campaign spokesman, Spence Rogers, told the Guardian. “We are more concerned about exposing Tom O’Halleran’s open borders liberal record.”
Mulcahy pointed out that the same person who appeared in the video trying to avoid Coleman has also appeared in recent photos from Rogers’s campaign. Though other outlets have identified “Oscar/Jose” as an NAU student, The Post was unable to reach that student early Saturday morning.
“Obviously contributing to Tom pretending to be communists — it’s almost like they’re trying to set something up,” Mulcahy said. “I just think this was really, really misguided attempt ... to try to embarrass Tom and to try to embarrass the campaign.”
The Arizona GOP did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Saturday morning.
The Arizona Republic reported Friday that the two young men had been a staff member and a volunteer for the Arizona Republican Party, and that neither was working there anymore.
Mulcahy said O’Halleran’s campaign has not filed a police report but has not ruled out taking legal action.
“We’re taking everything into consideration on the best way to move forward,” Mulcahy said. “At the end of the day, the two gentlemen who conducted this were low-level campaign volunteers. I’m sure encouraged to do this by someone more senior. ... We would like to see those people be held accountable.”