Shady political PACs, anonymous Twitter accounts, and charlatans are spreading disinformation while monetizing from social media. How an American social media grift is siphoning money from Democratic candidates’ coffers.
It’s the season for hucksters. Millions of Americans, alarmed over President Donald Trump, his administration, and its controversial actions, are reaching into their wallets to help anybody who claims to be able to help rid him from office.
But not all of the people and groups soliciting funds necessarily benefit the “resistance.” Some just want to cash in on this dissatisfaction.
So-called Scam PACs are a concern, warned current Federal Election Commission (FEC) chairwoman Ellen Weintraub and former commissioner Ann Ravel in a September 2016 memorandum.
The commissioners define the term as “political committees that collect political contributions frequently using the name of a candidate, but which spend little to none of the proceeds on political activity benefiting that candidate.”
The current political climate is ripe for hucksters, warned the Brennan Center for Justice, and in May reported on several conservative PACs busted for such activities.
A cottage industry of “resistance” social media celebrities has flourished under the Trump administration.
“They’re cashing in on the collective uncertainty we’ve been in since November 2016,” says Aram Sinnreich, chair of communication studies at American University. “Some of them are more ethical than others — some have actual expertise — others are straight up disinformation propaganda or opportunistic nothings.”
Mad Dog PAC
One example is Mad Dog, a Democratic PAC founded and chaired by Claude Taylor, registered with the FEC on December 13, 2017. Taylor goes by the pompous Twitter handle @TrueFactsStated. He is a self-proclaimed bomb-thrower and, according to his Twitter header, a “Liberal Provocateur”.
With over 219,000 Twitter followers, and close to 18,000 Facebook friends, Taylor spends most of his days tweeting samples of Mad Dog merchandise to troll the President and prominent Republicans.
The PAC’s motto, featured on Mad Dog’s website, is “Go. Fight. Win.” Yet it’s uncertain as to who, besides Taylor, is actually winning.
Over the past 18 months, $1.1 million has been donated to Mad Dog PAC. Taylor has paid himself $101,153 for “fundraising services,” not counting numerous expenses for vehicle repairs, lodging, boat rentals, Apple products, his cell phone bill, airfare, dining expenses, and hundreds of dollars spent at an Ashburn, GA, gas station.
Per its 2018 year-end filing, Mad Dog PAC collected over $900,000 (around $680,000 of which came from small, non-itemized donors).
Taylor spent $350,000 on independent expenditures. Out of the $550,000 on operating expenditures, Taylor pocketed over $70,000 for “fundraising services.” Additionally, Taylor paid $12,758 in donor money on late-filing penalties. And $188,000 went toward merchandising.
According to the FEC’s latest mid-year filing, over the past six months, Mad Dog collected $214,684 ($159,486 of which came from small donors.) It spent $17,600 on independent expenditures and dedicated $187,532 to operating expenditures. Taylor pocketed $30,579.
The author reached out to Taylor for comment. He responded he would need to check with his accountant, and hung up the phone.
Merchandise, Billboards, and Balloons
Taylor also appears to be involved in an international merchandising venture.
FEC deputy press agency spokesman Christian Hilland confirmed Taylor is listed as the resident agent of what appears to be a for-profit limited liability company that sells Mad Dog PAC merchandise overseas. Registered in Maryland on July 17, 2018, No Prior Restraint, LLC, reported to the FEC over $29,000 in disbursements from August to October 2018.
Taylor has stated he intends to use the company’s proceeds to fund an anti-Putin billboard in Ukraine, a country already fraught with election integrity corruption. FEC laws state that campaigns may not solicit or accept contributions from foreign nationals, prohibiting contributions, donations, expenditures, and disbursements solicited, directed, received or made directly or indirectly by or from foreign nationals.
However, according to Hilland, “committees are permitted to make payments to foreign-owned companies for bona fide services rendered to the campaign.”
LLCs have become an expansive vehicle for hiding foreign donations. Up until August 10, Michael L. Higgs, Maryland’s director of the Department of Assessments and Taxation, had deemed No Prior Restraint, LLC, a company not in good standing, for failing to comply with state reporting requirements. Therefore, it’s impossible to determine how Mad Dog’s foreign donations are being used and who it’s influencing.
Although FEC laws permit PACs to apply donations to cover such expenses as Mad Dog’s, Taylor’s inconsistent and seemingly unscrupulous fundraising tactics don’t allow full transparency into how much he’s raised and how he’s applied donor money.
For example, Taylor has used his online celebrity status to earn significant cash through a series of crowdfunding campaigns, which fly under FEC reporting guidelines. In May 2017, he collected $18,060 from a GoFundMe campaign, having asked his followers for help with multiple vehicle repairs.
Later that year, he received $24,750 from another GoFundMe campaign to pay for legal fees he anticipated while goading his followers in an online harassment crusade against journalist Cassandra Fairbanks. Fairbanks filed the lawsuit on September 5, 2017.
Taylor solicited donations directing his followers to send checks and money orders made payable to the Claude Taylor Legal Defense Fund, addressed to his counselor, Dirk Schwenk, an Annapolis, MD, maritime lawyer and musician. Taylor plugged his online photography business website, travelphotography.net, where followers — particularly those overseas — could donate to his legal fund via PayPal.
Fairbanks charged Taylor harassed her online, calling her a “cam girl,” “sex cam worker,” “web porn girl,” and “escort,” instructing his followers to Google inappropriate photos of her — taken when she was 17 — that were ultimately removed from the internet
On October 24 Taylor announced that Fairbanks had dropped the suit. He claimed he donated portions of his legal fund: $5,000 to the Virgin Islands hurricane relief effort, $2,000 to Democratic candidates, and left $8,500 to his lawyer’s trust.
Fairbanks’s lawsuit includes the names of Taylor’s alleged co-conspirators, who — in addition to his enabling followers — may deserve much credit for his Twitter celebrity status and financial success. Referred to as a “cadre of citizen journalists,” the list of names in court documents includes Louise Mensch (289,000 followers), John Schindler (272,000 followers), and the anonymous Twitter account @Counterchekist (106,000 followers).
According to Fairbanks’s lawsuit, this online group collectively refer to themselves as “The Scooby Gang” and “Team Patriot.” Despite numerous articles outlining the blatantly false conspiracy theories peddled by Team Patriot, they retain a large online following.
Labeled “resistance grifters,” “resistance hucksters, and “rogues of the resistance,” the primary characters of Team Patriot have profited from the fears and hopes of hundreds of thousands of Americans concerned about the current political climate.
Taylor emerged as something of a folk hero to the online resistance crowd. He garnered his fame by touting his career in the Clinton White House as a staffer and a veteran of three presidential campaigns.
In a June 2017 radio interview, Taylor claimed his proximity to the White House afforded him access to the inside workings of the legal and intelligence communities.
An apparent example of the FEC’s definition of “scam PAC” is Mad Dog’s Adopt-a-Dem campaign. Taylor and his Mad Dog accounts tweet images of Taylor’s preferred candidates photoshopped into PAC-emblemed memes, without donating any of the proceeds to the actual candidates.
Mad Dog designed Warhol-esque T-shirts featuring the faces of Democratic candidates Taylor deems worthy of promoting: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Kamala Harris (CA), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttegieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden.
None of the proceeds have been donated to those candidates — or any other candidate.
Does Mad Dog’s Negative Messaging Benefit Democratic Candidates or Claude Taylor?
Mad Dog spends its PAC money on negative billboards trolling Trump and other Republican politicians. In December 2017 he began a crowdfunding campaign to fund his first project, collecting $6,199 to pay for a $5,000 billboard.
Last May, Taylor commissioned a billboard targeting Louisiana’s Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, captioned “Steve Scalise LOVED voting away your healthcare. TAKE HIM OUT!” Not even a year prior, Scalise had been the victim of a mass shooting during a practice for a congressional baseball game in Alexandria, VA, and nearly died.
Taylor gained online celebrity status and attention from the press after applying PAC money toward a giant, inflatable rat designed to look like Trump. He hoists it onto a truck he drives around, as well as onto chartered boats he uses to troll Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Taylor applied PAC donations toward a New Year’s Eve trip to Florida last year to protest Trump, even after learning that the president wouldn’t be staying at his resort. Mad Dog sells “Rat Boat” cruise tickets, chartering luxury cruise liners complete with a cash bar, plus the opportunity to take selfies with Taylor. PAC money is used to fuel, repair, and operate the vehicles.
In May, the Guardian published an opinion piece on the effectiveness of negative billboards targeting conservative pro-Brexit leaders, specifically those erected by the UK activist group, Led By Donkeys. Columnist Dawn Foster doubted that billboards change opinions:
“If the people targeted don’t feel embarrassment or shame for their chosen statements, and there’s no evidence any of them have, then you’re simply spending large sums of money to publicize their views across the country.”