A new report obtained by Townhall from the non-partisan Government Accountability Institute [GAI] shows the Obama campaign has potentially violated federal election law by failing to prevent the use of fraudulent or foreign credit card transactions on the official Obama for America [OFA] donation webpage.
For the past eight months, GAI has been investigating the potential influence of foreign online campaign donations in House, Senate and presidential elections. The report was conducted using spidering software and found thousands of foreign sites linking to campaign donation pages. The investigation was conducted with the guidance of a former U.S. attorney. GAI is led by Peter Schweizer, who recently exposed congressional insider trading in his book Throw Them All Out.
“As FBI surveillance tapes have previously shown, foreign governments understand and are eager to exploit the weaknesses of American campaigns,” the report says. “This, combined with the Internet’s ability to disintermediate campaign contributions on a mass scale, as well as outmoded and lax Federal Election Commission rules, make U.S. elections vulnerable to foreign influence.”
OFA seems to be taking advantage of a “foreign donor loophole” by not using CVV on their campaign donation page. When you donate online to the Obama campaign using a credit card, the contribution webpage does not require donors to enter a secure CVV number (also known as CSC, CVV2 or CVN), the three-digit securing code on the back of credit cards. This code, although not 100 percent effective, is used to ensure a person making a purchase physically possesses the card. According to the report, 90 percent of e-commerce and 19 of the 20 largest charities in the United States use a CVV code, making its use standard industry practice in order to prevent fraud. Another anti-fraud security measure includes software, better known as an Address Verification System, to verify a donor’s address matches the address on file with the credit card company. The investigation could not determine whether OFA is using this type of software to prevent fraudulent or illegal donations.
Because of the lack of a CVV code requirement, the door is opened for OFA to accept robo-donations, or in other words, large numbers of small and automatic donations made online to evade FEC reporting requirements. Although it isn’t illegal to decline the use of a secure CVV credit card code for campaign donations, it is illegal to accept campaign donations from foreign sources. Campaigns are required under criminal code not to solicit, accept or receive foreign donations in any amount. The Federal Elections Commission doesn’t require campaigns to disclose the names of donors making contributions of less than $200 unless audited. In addition, FEC rules don’t require campaigns to keep records of those giving less than $50. These rules combined with the lack of a CVV numbers make it easy for campaigns to get away with taking foreign donations.
According to GAI, it is the duty of the campaign to “ensure compliance with the law. Indeed, they risk criminal prosecution for the conscious failure to do so. This means that whether or not the FEC requires it to be reported, campaigns have an independent duty under the law to discover and protect against criminal campaign contributions.” Protecting against criminal campaign contributions is easily accomplished by requiring a CVV code on the campaign donation page.
OFA has specifically touted its “grassroots” success by showcasing the majority of its donations coming from those giving less than $200. It appears the campaign also solicits funds for less than $200 in order to avoid having to report the name of the person making a donation under FEC rules. The GAI documents included the following email from Barack Obama to campaign supporters:
IT ALL ADDS UP
A large part of the Team Obama operation is outsourced. More than 200 domain names with the word “Obama” in the web address have been purchased. The most significant of these websites may be Obama.com, which is owned by an Obama bundler in Shanghai, China with “questionable business ties to state-run Chinese enterprises,” according to the report.
Obama.com was purchased in 2008, and, although Obama.com is owned by a third party, not the campaign itself, the site redirects its foreign traffic, a whopping 68 percent, directly to the official Obama for America campaign donation page. The Obama campaign’s official and main website, BarackObama.com, sees 43 percent of its traffic coming from foreign IP addresses, according to web metrics firm Markosweb and noted in the report.
According to industry leading web analytics site Markosweb, an anonymously registered redirect site (Obama.com) features 68 % foreign traffic. Starting in December 2011, the site was linked to a specific donation page on the official BarackObama.com campaign website for ten months. The page loaded a tracking number, 634930, into a space on the website labeled "who encouraged you to make this donation." That tracking number is embedded in the source code for Obama.com and is associated with the Obama Victory Fund. In early September 2012, the page began redirecting to the standard Obama Victory Fund donation page. Search engine optimization (SEO) efforts, using common spamming techniques, may have been undertaken by unknown third-parties, generating foreign traffic to Obama.com.
China has a long history of trying to illegally influence American elections. Their efforts were most prominent in the 1990s.
In the past, foreign governments have relied on middlemen to transfer illegal campaign contributions. With the explosion of Internet campaign fundraising, the prospect of foreign powers, criminal gangs, foreign individuals, or domestic fraudsters making direct campaign contributions to American elections becomes far more likely. Put simply, campaign fundraising crimes are now just a click away. Rather than risking detection or relying on a middleman, donations can be anonymously donated through campaign websites. The state of Internet security of many political campaigns’ websites leaves American elections vulnerable to fraud or foreign influence.
AN HONEST MISTAKE, OR SOMETHING MORE?
Is the non-use of CVV code verification simply an oversight or mistake made by Obama for America? Most likely, no. The Obama campaign is willing to pay millions in fees in order to accept unsecured contributions on their donation page without the CVV code. Attorney Kenneth Sukhia analyzed the GAI’s findings and this revelation in the following way in a separate report.
“As GAI points out, if a campaign is truly seeking to do all it can to prevent illicit contributions, there is no reason not to employ these basic fraud prevention tools. First, these tools are easily installed, and once set up, operate with a minimum of administrative oversight by the vendor. They are fully automated, but can be easily re-calibrated as called for. “
“Under these circumstances, a campaign’s decision to turn off either of these systems despite the increased fees raises legitimate questions as to a campaign’s knowing failure to use its best efforts to comply with the laws prohibiting foreign contributions. Indeed, it’s reasonable to ask why any campaign would ever opt to pay card issuers more for less information and less security. More importantly, why pay card issuers more when doing so lessens a campaign’s ability to comply with the law? It’s hard to imagine any campaign would pay extra for less security and marketing intelligence, unless it stood to benefit in some way from doing so.”
“Because a campaign’s decision to opt out of the standard security measures and to pay more to receive less information about their contributors defies all conventional campaign logic, and because it is difficult to identify a more plausible motive, there is reason to suspect that such decisions may be motivated by the belief that more money could be raised through foreign contributions than lost in added fees by declining security tools designed to stop them.”
OFA isn’t run by amateurs and has a highly sophisticated online presence. OFA is known as the “gold standard” in online technology with a Facebook co-founder, veteran YouTube videographer and an award-winning CNN producer keeping everything running smoothly.
Not to mention, the campaign obviously sees the benefits in using a CVV code to prevent fraud. After all, OFA uses a CVV security code for merchandise purchases. To purchase a sweatshirt or other item in the OFA store, a CVV code must be entered at check out, but the donation page does not require a credit card security code to be used. In addition, the chief technology officer of the Obama campaign, Harper Reed, is a former chief technology officer of the T-shirt company Threadless. Threadless requires a CVV code for online purchases. They clearly know how CVV codes work.
As of September 26, 2012, the Obama campaign has raised $271,327,755 in contributions under $200 for the 2012 cycle. In 2008, it was $335,139,233. The Romney campaign has raised just $58,456,968 in contributions under $200 and has all CVV and online security measures in place. In total, the Obama campaign raised $500 million online in 2008 with $335 million in contributions--more than half--falling under the $200 reporting requirement. Obama has raised more online funds than any campaign in history.
The campaign said that just over 1.8 million people made donations to the campaign last month. According to the campaign, over 500k of these were brand-new donors, having neither given in 2008 nor 2012. 98% of contributions were under the reporting threshold of $250. Of these, the average contribution was $53. [It's] really a tale of two worlds. 35k people gave an average of $2,600, while just over 1.7 million people gave an average of $53. Half the campaign's haul came from people giving around the maximum amount and half from people who don't have to be disclosed. Seems a bit odd. The average of $53 from small donors is particularly noteworthy. Contributions under $200 don't have to be disclosed, but the campaign still has to keep track of the donor's name, in case subsequent donations push their contribution over the reporting threshold. For contributions under $50, however, the campaign doesn't even have to keep track of the donor's name. It is effectively considered a "petty cash" donation. A person could theoretically make 10 $49 donations and never be reported, even though their total contributions are above the FEC's reporting threshold. With an average donation of $53 from small donors, Obama has A LOT of donors who will never be disclosed and whose names aren't even known to the campaign. Tens of millions of dollars worth.
As previously mentioned, the GAI report mentions campaigns have an obligation to protect against illegal campaign contributions. The law under U.S. Code makes it illegal for campaigns or political committees to accept direct or indirect contributions of money from foreign nationals. It is also illegal for a campaign or committee to “solicit, accept, or receive a contribution from a foreign national." Penalties for violations are stiff, according to the report.
While no person can be held accountable under the law for violations he or she is powerless to prevent or for violations of which a person had no knowledge, the law recognizes that to permit meaningful enforcement a person cannot escape responsibility for a crime by deliberately ignoring facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a crime is most likely being committed. Moreover, the FEC regulations make it clear that a campaign official cannot avoid criminal culpability by ignoring facts that would lead a reasonable person to inquire whether foreign nationals are contributing funds to the campaign.
DIRECT SOLICITATIONS FROM OFA TO FOREIGN NATIONALS AND THE ONLINE PAPER TRAIL
The internet for the Obama campaign has proved to be a cash cow, but it's also provided a digital paper trail of potential illegal activity for investigators. When foreign bloggers received donation solicitations from the Obama campaign, they wrote about it online. GAI found their sites and documented their experiences. Social media accomplished the same thing--an online trail of Obama campaign solicitations to foreign nationals.
1. In July and August, a Chinese blogger reposts letters he has received from the Obama campaign, each of which contains a solicitation for $3 or $5 (note that these smaller donations don’t require the campaign to keep any record of them).118 Markosweb states that 87.8% of the traffic flowing to the site comes from China while only 4.5% is from the United States. The website contains hyperlinks that lead to the campaign’s donation page. The website also contains graphics showing the disparity between Romney’s and the President’s fundraising and a countdown clock to the date of the election. Other than the campaign solicitation letters, the website is in Chinese characters.
2. On August 9th, 2012 the Obama campaign sent a solicitation letter to “Hikemt Hadjy-Zadh,” an Azerbaijani citizen. His email address is on an Azerbaijani domain and he posts numerous solicitation letters he has received from the Obama campaign. Mr. Hadjy-Zadh reposts the complete letters on a discussion forum, including numerous hyperlinks that go directly to the campaign’s donation page.
3. A writer in Vietnam writes on a website for the Vietnam Institute for Development Studies (a government-backed think tank) and posts emails he has received from my.barackobama.com with more than 24 total links to the campaign’s donate page embedded in the emails. The website is in the Vietnamese language, hosted on a Vietnamese server, and uses a Vietnamese domain address. In one instance, a letter from Mitch Stewart, Director of the Obama campaign’s “Organizing for America,” asks for donations. Ironically, Stewart laments that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is reportedly taking money from foreign sources. The reader is then prompted to give his name and email address and thereafter begins receiving solicitation letters for donations.
4. A Dutch blogger writing in Dutch on a Dutch website reprints an email from March 22, 2010 in which President Obama thanks his supporters for their help. “You’re welcome, Mr. President,” he writes back.
5. The Dutch blog “His Dirk” received a donation request from the campaign. Aware of the U.S. law, the blogger decided not to contribute. The blogger observed, “I imagine many non- Americans have money transferred to the Obama campaign. It’s just too easy.”
6. A member of the Italian Radical Socialist movement and an administrator of their website reposts solicitations from the Obama campaign which he reports receiving regularly for three years. “And because we are three years in his mailing list...But frankly after 3 years his letters excite me much less...”
7. A Japanese blogger named Isogaya posts a link to the Obama campaign’s donation page. When posting the link, Isogaya notes that an option in giving would be to give a gift card.
8. A Norwegian blogger posts a solicitation from the Obama campaign, including the link to the donate page. When another blogger opines that non-U.S. citizens cannot contribute because of American law, the blogger responds in Norwegian,“I have in practice given money to Obama, I had done it.”
9. A blogger in Egypt who serves on the board of the Union of Arab Bloggers posts the solicitation letters he reports to regularly receive from the Obama campaign.127 “We as Arabs and Muslims” support the “Democratic party, compared to the Republican Party,” but notes his objection to the President’s stand on gay marriage.
Although GAI's findings were most prominent with Obama for America, the “CCV loophole” is a problem across the political spectrum. The report found nearly half of Congress is at least vulnerable to fraud and foreign donations.
Of the 446 House and Senate members who have an online donation page, 47.3% do not require the three or four digit credit card security number (officially called the Card Verification Value, or the CVV) for Internet contributions.
During his run for U.S. Senate, then Republican candidate Marco Rubio’s campaign donation website didn’t have CVV protection. The protection was put in place in May 2012 after the campaign was over. The report alleges the connection to foreign websites could be a violation of the Federal Election Commission solicitation laws and at minimum put Rubio at risk for fraud in his campaign.
The Government Accountability Institute found considerable international interest in the Rubio campaign, including significant foreign traffic going to the website marcorubioforussenate.com. Links on foreign websites often took the form of videos that featured links to “donate” to the Rubio campaign.
Sukhia also mentioned the Rubio campaign in his anaylsis of the report.
“The Government Accountability Institute found considerable international interest in the Rubio campaign, including significant foreign traffic going to the website marcorubioforussenate.com.”
“GAI found numerous video links on foreign websites that featured running ads to “donate” to the Rubio campaign.”
Although campaigns may have CVV in place, organizations they take money from often times do not. For example, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has accepted more than $5.7 million from ActBlue, a fundraising organization that does not require U.S. citizenship verification or a CVV code when accepting contributions.
Because the problems of potential fraud due to a lack of CVV use are so widespread, GAI created a 50-state interactive map to show which members of Congress lack standard secure campaign donation websites.
SOLUTION FOR OBAMA CAMPAIGN
In his 2010 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities.”
In this situation, the foreign donation problem coming from online sources can be solved and President Obama’s promise of transparency can be kept in one click by enabling all security protections and releasing the names and records on all transactions under $200 to verify Obama for America is a clean campaign operating within FEC law.
Overall, major reforms are needed to ensure foreign contributions are not interfering with or influencing elections in the United States.
Obama for America did not return calls for comment.