He even uses a recording of the president's voice: "I am Donald Trump, tonight I ask you to defend our very dangerous southern border, out of love and devotion to our country." A deep-voiced narrator then asks the listener to "be part of the hundreds of thousands of patriots who helped President Trump finally build a wall by making a punctual and urgent donation to the campaign".
Calls like this, estimated at over 200,000, have raised more than $ 100,000 in January alone, but this money is not going to the Trump campaign, whose spokesman told CNN that they were not affiliated with the calls. The calls originate rather from a political action committee that is not affiliated with Trump's reelection effort and has not yet spent any money during of this electoral cycle or the last electoral cycle, according to the records of the Federal Electoral Commission.
A CNN KFile survey of the group behind the calls, Support American Leaders PAC, revealed that it was led by 32-year-old Matthew Tunstall, who has been managing ghost groups for a long time, targeting people on political calls to fundraise while doing very little – if at all – putting this money into a political goal. According to FEC records, Tunstall earned more than $ 300,000 through these groups in the 2016 presidential cycle.
The operation is actually an income cycle of washing, rinsing, repeating: paying for ads to collect money to pay for more ads to raise more money, and so on, Tunstall bringing home all the money that would not be used to buy more ads. The company may also violate the spending rules controlled by three different federal agencies with respect to identity theft and advertising disclosure.
Determining who was behind the calls was difficult. The recorded calls are from nonprofessional numbers, do not identify the group that is responsible for them, or provide a callback number. And when KFile contacted several call center operators working for the group, they each provided the name of a non-existent PAC.
These practices appear to violate the rules of the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission regarding identity theft and require that the advertisements reveal the name of the organization carrying out the transaction. the calls.
In response to CNN's written questions, Tunstall asserted that the calls followed the required rules and that any call beginning with "I'm Donald Trump" resulted from technical errors and that these calls had ceased as a result of the CNN survey.
"It was a technical mistake if you heard that, many variants have recently been tested for different political ads regarding support for President Trump," Tunstall wrote to CNN in an email. "Many legal sources have said that the use of voice clips of politicians is acceptable and is not considered an" identity theft "because politicians are public officials and do not have the right to look like those of citizens and celebrities ".
History of playing on both sides
Almost all of the money donated to both groups was used to pay for radio ads and calls for more donations, or for Tunstall and unspecified media consultants. According to the records of the FEC, the groups did not make any donations to any real candidates.
Tunstall does not seem to have changed his habits, but he claims that his ads have never intended to pretend to be anyone, but that he plans to spend that money to support candidates like President Trump.
"With regard to identity theft, Support American Leaders PAC has never deliberately intended to do anything other than comply with the rules of the FEC and support candidates." such as President Trump .. Supporting American Leaders PAC is not the Trump campaign nor affiliated with the Trump campaign, "he added.
But recorded calls handled by CNN's KFILE and calls and data obtained from Nomorobo, a company widely used to stop automated calls on mobile phones and landlines, show that Support American Leaders PAC had no disclosure required on their calls. Support Calls American Leaders PAC started with Trump clips and ended up asking callers to connect with an operator or unsubscribe.
A spokesman for the FEC told KFile that he demands phone calls from the campaign of a candidate or committee "that he must include a clear warning identifying the name of the committee that paid for the communication ". Communications that are not sent by an authorized committee for a federal candidate must include a disclaimer that must "state the name of the committee paying it and indicate whether or not it has been authorized by a federal candidate".
Despite this, Tunstall asserted that his calls contained the required disclosure and that he had made more than 200,000 calls.
"I can not say how many recordings could have been recorded by Nomorobo, but the PAC name as well as the required phone number are at the end of the registration, in accordance with the ECF regulations regarding to political broadcasts, "he said. "200,000 calls have been made with different message variants for pre-launch testing and, in the coming months, we plan to reach over five million combined voters between radio, television and telephone calls."
Professor Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine, said Tunstall might open up to criminal penalties if his actions were intentional.
"Deliberate violations of federal election campaign laws may incur somebody else's criminal liability in addition to civil penalties," Hasen told CNN.
Tunstall and its cap are not easy to find
Due to the lack of disclosure in automated calls, the PAC can only be contacted by being connected to an operator if you receive a call and pressing a number when prompted. Nomorobo had incoming calls from PAC-related numbers transferred to a reporter's cell phone for CNN.
The call center operators repeatedly told KFile, in four calls, that the group making the call was the Trump campaign. When they were in a hurry, operators said the money would go to the Conservative leaders' CAP, a non-existent cap. KFile has discovered the real name of the organization by donating to the group with a prepaid debit card.
The transaction was charged to "Support Trump" via Rally, a payment processor used for fundraising requests. Rally, who informs donors where their money is going when asked, told CNN that this money went to Support US Leaders PAC, a PAC registered with the FEC.
Following an investigation, Rally told CNN's KFile that the processor had suspended Support American Leaders PAC based on previous reports on Tunstall.
Tunstall told CNN that the call center operators had been asked to indicate the name of the correct PAC and that the error resulted from incorrect scripts.
"The call center agents are trained to say that the contribution will be used to help support the US PAC leaders, re-elect President Trump and support his program, which is true," he said. . "The initial tests are still in the preliminary stage, where the call center agents are still getting used to the script." This is an error or something that does not appear. in the script if you have heard this.The agents are advised to state the end of the call warning according to the rules of the FEC, namely: "This call has been paid for and authorized by American Leaders PAC Support. . Contributions paid are not deductible for income tax purposes. "
Tunstall refused to give CNN the name of its call centers when requested.
Tunstall could not say what "Support America" was on his FEC discs.
"Donors' information is only needed for donations over $ 200 and we have made every effort to bring together the occupation and the employer of these donors," Tunstall told CNN, questioned on the lack of listed donors. "America Support" may be the descriptor of the payment processor or a donation check. "