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Kanyes Zombie Campaign Attracts Teen Donorsand Feds Scrutiny

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

REUTERS

In five-plus years of doing this Ive never come across something like this, said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

Roger Sollenberger

Political Reporter

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The unusual violations in the West campaigns FEC reports include multiple donations from minors, multiple possible contributions from foreign nationals and several fake names and addresses that trace to drop-shipping warehouses on both coasts. On top of that, experts say, West himself may face an investigation for unlawful fundraising practices that pulled in nearly $100,000 in small donations this year.

In five-plus years of doing this Ive never come across something like this, said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has filed 14 federal lawsuits targeting illegal campaign finance activity since 2016.

Kanye West

The campaign has to date collected $2.2 million from small-dollar donors, nearly all of it in exchange for campaign swag, not out of support for a Yeezy administration. Some of it was snapped up by entrepreneurial zoomers intending to flip the limited-edition collectibles in online marketplaces, scoring a few thousand dollars in easy cash. Price points on the site ranged from a $40 hat to a $200 Kanye 2020 Vision hat/hoodie bundle, but they list higher than that today in online marketplaces.

But some recent donors arent happy.

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I dont know whats happening there, Ian Bloom said. I ordered like 20 hoodies off his campaign website, along with a lot of other people that I know. They said it would be three weeks, and after that I emailed the support team, and the email just wasnt a thing.

He provided a screenshot of an email that had bounced back from the campaign, showing that his address had been blocked. After that, Bloom said, he called his credit card company to dispute and cancel the charge, which he said is still under investigation.

Students account for more than 1,200 of the campaigns 3,161 reported donations, contributing a total $349,160, with $26,540 of that coming in this year. Bloom, who communicates with other resellers on Discord social media boards, said that I can say with confidence that at least half of us in the group have to be still in high school.

It is illegal to knowingly solicit and accept campaign donations from anyone under the age of 18. The West campaign did not reply to a request for comment for this article.

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Yea I thought everything was going to go smoothly just like any other website I buy merchandise from, Zapata said in a text exchange while he was in class. Asked how he came up with that kind of money, Zapata, whose parents are both high school teachers, said hed been reselling apparel for around two years. Ive been just growing my business every day and making more money every single day. Ive just been flipping my money through hype things, the sophomore said.

Kanye West

The contributions are teeming with irregularities. Brandon Schrock of Laredo, Texas, told the federal government that his employer was poop, and his occupation was pooper. A number of donors appear to have given under assumed names, some of which appear at first glance as incomprehensible, such as the HDB family, first names NXSUS, JHWAT and EBHXE.

Those arent names, of course. Theyre customer IDs kept on rolls by drop- shipping warehouses. Drop-shippers are online resellers who often buy in bulk and have the items delivered to warehouses such as Portland, Oregon-based HDB Network Technology, which store the items and then ship them directly to customers who buy from the reseller. Addresses traced to dropboxes or warehouses in multiple states, including Oregon, California, New Jersey, Delaware, Florida, New Hampshire and Hawaii.

A logistics manager at HDB explained the arrangement with NXSUS, JHWAT and EBHXE.

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We service a lot of people, so we give unique codes. The items ship to our warehouse, and once the product is in our warehouse our customer will know, the manager said.

The manager, a Chinese national, pulled up the profile for donor EBXHE. Thats my warehouse code for one of my customers, he said. This customer purchases multiple items. They have to put this code into the website, so they put this ID on the shipping label.

Customer EBXHE, who donated on the same day as customer JHWAT, was located in Japan.

It is illegal for campaigns and political committees to knowingly solicit or accept donations from foreign nationals, which the West campaign appears to have done several times.

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Red Xue, who contributed $280 to the campaign, listed a Redding, California, address associated with a flight school catering to Chinese nationals. Donors hanjiahao WMFQBZ, Baan Zhangqingjia and Brocket Zhangxin reported addresses at west-coast logistics facilities also apparently used by Chinese nationals. The address listed by Tommaso Giraudi is affiliated with parcel forwarding company Stackly, which touts international service: Sign up to get your FREE American locker in tax-free Delaware! Buy from your favorite stores in US and ship to your locker, combine them in one shipment and ship it to your doorstep! West contributor Teklit Goitoms Denver address traces to a company called Alameda Discount Liquor and Coin Cloud Bitcoin ATM, and Paulo Morante claims to reside at a nursery school in Jersey City.

Recently, the West campaigns site removed its online store and paused donations, but it had raised money and shipped items for several weeks after the hip-hop mogul made good on the last of the debt he owed himself, on Jan. 7. Libowitz said that dead campaigns with no debt arent allowed to raise money.

Campaigns can continue raising as long as they have debt on the books, and they can continue to pay costs while working to pay that off. But if the debts have been paid and the candidate has lost, and hasnt converted the committee to the next campaign cycle, which Kanye has not done, then they cant raise money. Theres no election for you to legally contribute to. But West continued to sell merch without raising money for debt, he said, adding, again, Ive literally never seen something like this before.

If and when the campaign shuts down, it has to decide what to do with the million-plus it holds in the bank. The campaign for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), for example, transferred almost all of its remaining funds to charities upon his death. West can do that, too, or pass it on to other PACs.

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While Libowitz thinks that the donations are certainly not criminal, he pointed out that the FEC could take action, shutting down the campaign and slapping it with fines for the unlawful donations and lack of compliance oversight.

Its unclear whether the outsider operation was fully aware of the confounding mesh of rules and regulations that is campaign finance law, which snares even the most seasoned specialists.

Its on the campaign to make a reasonable effort to make sure the donors can give legally, Libowitz said. A normal campaign would have a dedicated compliance officer to ensure everything is kosher before filing reports.

Last month, the FEC sent a letter to Wests campaign treasurer, Philadelphia- based CPA Andre Bodiford, whose LinkedIn page says he previously worked for multinational accounting firm Deloitte, notifying him that the campaign had accepted one or more contributions that appear to exceed the maximum dollar limit placed on individual donors.

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The letter only flagged one donor: 20-year-old Chase Wittmann of Appleton, Wisconsin, who gave $3,800 to the campaign in two payments, $1,400 on Oct. 31 and another $2,400 on Nov. 2, the day before the election, putting him $1,000 over the line.

Its likely that Wittmann effectively got $1,000 in free merch, Libowitz said.

Its not technically a sale, because youre donating and not technically buying anything. If youve over-donated, youll get the difference back but probably wouldnt be required to return anything you received in exchange for the donation, he said, adding once more that he had never seen these kinds of exchanges before and so could not say for sure.

In this case, the young donors seemed unaware that their contributions were barred by federal law. They just saw a business opportunity. Kanye merch, among the brands items in the world, often sells out almost immediately, but not many eyes were on the Kanye 2020 site. They saw their giving not as a donation, but as a purchase, an investment that would hopefully return thousands of dollars when the shirts become collectible items a few months down the line.

Kanye West

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Major campaigns frequently woo high rollers with big fundraising dinners and other incentives, but that money often goes to affiliated committees that can accept big checks. Merch, Libowitz said, is typically a way to squeeze donations out of small-dollar supporters.

Do people make contributions to get swag? All the time. Campaigns sell merch not just for visibility but to get low-dollar donors. How do you get that extra 25 bucks? Give them a mug or a hat, Libowitz said. People sell things later as collectibles, sure, and people sometimes buy them planning to sell them years down the line, but Ive never heard of flipping merch during a campaign.

One donor, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely, said, I got into flipping stuff on StockX and saw these shirts were selling for $300, so I looked it up [on the campaign website], and they were going for less than that. These things usually sell out, but they were still available for purchase, and Im still reselling today for way more than I paid.

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The donor continued: The other thing with these hoodies, is Kanye just signed a 10-year deal with GAP. So Im pretty sure that this hoodieits honestly a badass hoodie, the heaviest hoodie Ive ever seen in my life, way thickand GAP makes pretty similar stuff, but its also kind of cheap, you know, and being part of the campaign, just the environment hes created with his merch, Im very confident thisll be worth much more in the future.

After emailed complaints about shipping delays went unanswered for several weeks, the donor says that he canceled the charge with his credit card company. Days later, the merch showed up. The donor claims to have already sold a few items online, enough to recoup about half of the upfront cost, with more to go.

I already sold five, and Im just letting the market take care of it. I think theyll go up in value and continue to go up, said Barfuss. Right now theyre still selling for $350 in some places, and I have no doubt theyll continue to go up.

The Kanye 2020 Vision purple hoodie sees wide price swings. EBay asking prices run as high as $330, and this weeks sales on the virtual marketplace StockX have jumped around between $229 and $372 for a size XL.

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Another West donor who gave more than $1,000, but asked not to be identified, shared a screenshot of the campaigns response to an emailed inquiry about the long delivery times. The campaign laid the blame on Covid-19 related delays as well as a large data glitch that shut the operation down for several weeks.

Our production is in the works as we experience Covid-19 related delays, reads the email, which was sent Feb. 17. Please note that the site also experienced a large data glitch that halted our production for several weeks. We expect a replenishment of product in 10 business days. We understand these delays may not be ideal and we are happy to cancel the existing order if so desired.

The donor declined to cancel, figuring the shipment would arrive eventually, and patience would pay off in the end.

While all of the donors that ishonest spoke to for this article looked up to West as an iconoclastic artist and entrepreneur, none of them want him to be president.

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I just dont think he is mentally capable of running a entire country, [sic] said the 15-year-old Zapata.

I certainly resonate with a lot of different ideas that Kanye projects, and they speak to me, said Barfuss, but added that he thought West saw other reasons that were more valuable, such as media attention and spotlighting his clothing line, and not so much being president.

No way I wouldve voted for him, he said, but I think that there were a lot of other intentions behind this.

Additional reporting by Will Bredderman

Read more on: thedailybeast, campaign


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