"This scheme is illegal": Trump campaign masked $170 million in payments, watchdog alleges

The campaign is accused of funneling the money to unknown recipients through firms run by campaign officials

Published July 28, 2020 8:44PM (EDT)

Brad Parscale (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Brad Parscale (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

A nonprofit transparency watchdog filed a complaint Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) accusing President Donald Trump's campaign and joint fundraising committee of laundering nearly $170 million through firms belonging to former campaign manager Brad Parscale and campaign lawyers.

The complaint accuses the Trump campaign of diverting money through two companies, American Made Media and Parscale Strategy, in order to hide the destinations for millions of dollars in payments. Parscale, who has been accused of "milking" Trump "like a cow," was demoted earlier this month amid flagging poll numbers and several unforced errors.

The campaign allegedly used the same scheme to cover up previously reported payments to Trump family members and associates such as Lara Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle — both of whom work for the campaign.

"This scheme is illegal," Brendan Fischer, Director of the CLC Federal Reform Program, told Salon.

The names of a number of campaign vendors identified in previous reporting do not appear in the campaign's FEC filings. Instead, it appears that the campaign reports its payments to American Made Media, a company created by Trump campaign officials, which then moves the funds to third-party vendors, according to the complaint.

For instance, reports indicate that the Trump campaign contracted with Realtime Media and Opn Sesame. Both are headed by Gary Coby, the campaign's digital director. However, neither firm appears in the campaign's filings.

The CLC also claims that it uncovered Federal Communications Commission records showing that Trump campaign ads are placed by Harris Sikes Media, but the campaign has not reported any payments to the firm during this election cycle.

While it is not unusual for campaigns to omit some third-party vendor payments — such as a media company subcontracting a videographer — Fischer called these instances "a well-orchestrated scheme designed to undermine laws and transparency requirements."

"Trump took it to another level," Fischer said. "Those recipients weren't simply sub-vendors. They didn't take directions from Parscale's companies. They took directions directly from the Trump campaign. They worked for the Trump campaign, and the campaign tried to hide it."

The Trump campaign also reports paying approximately $48,000 a month for "strategy consulting" to Parscale Strategy, the consulting firm founded by former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale. Multiple media reports say that Parscale Strategy itself is a conduit for salary payments to Lara Trump and Guilfoyle, though those salaries combined account for only $30,000 a month.

"The big problem is we can't know how much was spent and where it was spent," Fischer said. "For instance, the campaign could be covering up unlawful coordination with independent groups, such as super PACs and dark money organizations. It's illegal to use common vendors, and we don't know."

"Or take the example of Cambridge Analytica from 2016," he said. "We might not know whether the campaign is working with a potentially problematic digital operation."

Fischer listed a number of other examples, such as additional payments to the Trump Organization or other Trump-linked entities.

"This campaign has a history of keeping certain transactions off the books," he said, pointing to the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels which landed former Trump "fixer" Michael Cohen behind bars. "What else isn't being disclosed? We don't know, and Trump's donors don't know how their money is being spent."

However, the mystery won't be solved any time soon. Fischer speculates that the FEC won't be able to fully unravel all of the issues until 2022 or 2023.

"Complaints this complicated usually remain pending for two to three years," he said.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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Brad Parscale Campaign Finance Corruption Donald Trump Elections Elections 2020 Fec Kim Guilfoyle Republicans