A new report from the Government Accountability Institute concludes that an alarming number of federal campaigns have made themselves vulnerable to illegal campaign contributions from foreigners. The campaigns of both presidential candidates were cited, with the campaign of President Obama given an especially large amount of scrutiny.
Highlights of the report include: that less than half of all congressional campaigns take the basic measures to protect against fraud; about forty percent of all traffic to President Obama’s official campaign website comes from foreign computers; lack of transparency on small donations makes it easy for foreigners to donate smaller amounts without being tracked; and that numerous foreign websites link to donation pages of various candidates.
“The Government Accountability Institute (GAI or ‘the Institute’) conducted an extensive eight month investigation into the potential for foreign and fraudulent online campaign donations to influence House, Senate, and presidential elections. The findings are alarming,” read the report.
Foreign donations are strictly illegal, and any campaign knowingly accepting foreign funds could be cited not only by the Federal Election Commission but charged in the criminal justice system. Still, the report concluded that outdated laws (which fail to address the use of social media and Internet) along with most campaigns’ unwillingness to self-police have led to vulnerabilities.
Often, the report concluded, campaigns failed to take even the basic measures to protect against contributions from foreign investors. One easy method is to require a Card Verification Value (CVV) with any credit card donation. The CVV is the three (or occasionally four) digit number found on the back of credit cards. By requiring a CVV, a campaign could ensure that the individual donating is in possession of the card. The report found that of the 535 US legislators, only 47.2% of this year’s congressional pages require a CVV with a credit card donation.
The report also cited a lack of required reporting of donations under $200 as another area of vulnerability. For individual donations between $50-200, disclosure is only required in the event of an FEC audit, which, according to the report, almost never happens. For donations below $50, no reporting is required at all.
Allegations of foreign donations are nothing new for the Obama campaign, which has been well aware of its fundraising negligence in this regard for years. One case cited from the 2008 campaign was that of Mary T. Biskup, an individual from Missouri who made donations of over $174,000 in 2008, according to records from the FEC. Ms. Biskup was interviewed and claimed to have never made any donations to the Obama campaign, nor was her credit card used. The episode raises the specter that foreigners or others trying to make illegal campaign donations – of considerable sums – may have used her name to make donations.
In addition, the name “Doodad Pro” was on at least 791 individual donations to the Obama campaign in 2008 for a total of $19,065. One address given for this identity was of a small liquor store whose proprietors had no knowledge of the donations. A slew of other nonsense names also made large contributions with phony personal information given. These revelations produced a media uproar early on in Obama’s presidency, and were never satisfactorily addressed. With virtually no improvements to the system since 2008, what certainty do we have that illicit funding is not happening again this campaign season?
Part of the problem, as the GAI report pointed out, is that the Obama campaign doesn’t require a CVV in order to make a donation. A CVV is required before making a donation to Mitt Romney’s campaign. The report also found that a startling 43% of all visitors to mybarackobama.com (the campaign’s official website) came from foreign computers. The study found that 11% of visitors to Mitt Romney’s website were foreigners.
The report concludes that between the large amounts of foreign traffic, along with not requiring CVVs, the Obama campaign is significantly vulnerable to illegal foreign donations.
“Though there is nothing inherently wrong with the President’s international attention, his donation pages’ lack of CVV means that this interest creates significant vulnerabilities for the integrity of the campaign’s donation process,” read the report.
A number of foreign bloggers have suggested that foreign donations to Obama are common place, the report cited.
“I have in practice given money to Obama, I had done it,” said an unidentified Norwegian blogger in the report.
A Dutch blogger named Dirk echoed similar thoughts. “I imagine many non-Americans have money transferred to the Obama campaign. It’s just too easy.”
The report also cited the case of Obama.com. Not owned by the Obama campaign itself, the website was owned for years by Robert Roche, an American expatriate living in Shanghai. Roche has been living in the Far East for more than two decades, but has also contributed regularly to Democratic candidates since he’s gone abroad.
The website Obama.com provides a direct link to the donation page on the official campaign website for the Obama campaign, and about 80% of all traffic to Obama.com comes from outside the US.
Probably not coincidentally, Roche has enjoyed great access to the White House. White House logs list nineteen visits by Roche since 2009. Roche was afforded a seat at President Obama’s head table during a 2011 State Dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The report recommended requiring CVVs for credit card donations. It also suggested the use of geo-location on all campaign websites. Geo-location software would identify a foreign Internet Protocol (a computer using the internet from a foreign country), and anyone with such an IP would then be required to prove they are a citizen. The report also recommended that rules for reporting donations less than $200 be increased to provide more transparency.
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