An obscure political group fundraising off of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has financial and personnel ties to a network of political groups accused of profiteering off of the small-dollar donations of unsuspecting supporters, public records show.
The group, Restore American Freedom and Liberty (RAFL), has been using Trump’s campaign to solicit contributions through fundraising emails. One recent message asked supporters to "help Donald Trump lock up the nomination" with contributions of "$25, $50, $100, $250, $500, $1000, or more."
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If the group’s past financial activity is any indicator, that money may not go toward supporting Trump’s candidacy. Like other groups to which RAFL has ties, the vast majority of its funds are not spent on advertising or campaign contributions, and instead are paid to a single New York-based consultant.
While Trump has disavowed outside groups supporting his candidacy, public records reveal how a number of organizations that use his name have capitalized on the enthusiasm his candidacy has created.
The common thread tying together that web of groups is Amagi Strategies, a New York-based consulting firm that has pulled down nearly three quarters of a million dollars in fees since 2012 from groups that spend minimal sums on actual activities designed to help the candidates they use to solicit donations.
RAFL is one such group. A "hybrid PAC" that conducts independent expenditures and serves as a conduit for campaign contributions, the group raised $152,181 in 2015, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The vast majority of contributions were unitemized, meaning they were the small-dollar donations—under $200—typically associated with emailed fundraising pitches.
RAFL’s website implies that it supports the reelection campaigns of Republican Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mike Lee (Utah), and Rand Paul (Ky.). However, FEC filings show no evidence that the group has spent money on behalf of the candidates or has made contributions to their campaigns.
Another page said donations would support Arizona State Sen. Kelli Ward’s bid for the Republican nomination for Senate. The group has also used Ward’s name to raise money on the online fundraising platform Piryx. Its page on that site lists one staff member: Tyler Whitney.
In the same period, the group reported paying $147,500 to a consulting firm called Amagi Strategies. Whitney, a young Republican operative in New York, is that firm’s chief executive. Whitney’s publicly listed phone number is not in service, and he did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment for this story.
Amagi provided the first donation to RAFL when it was formed in 2014, FEC records show. Its $2,000 contribution that December was the group’s only reported income that year. By April 2015, Amagi was pulling down five-figure fees from the group.
What that money actually paid for was not initially apparent. The FEC had to ask for additional information after RAFL’s financial disclosures left its relationship with Amagi unclear. The group amended an FEC filing to say that it was paying Amagi for "email marketing," "political research," and "operations."
In addition to his leadership role at Amagi, Whitney is listed as the treasurer of two other political groups: Patriots for Economic Freedom and Conservative America Now. Both have told the FEC that their offices are located at 424 E. 10th St. in New York City, the same address listed on Amagi’s incorporation documents.
Both groups have written large checks to Amagi, in amounts that far exceed their expenditures on behalf of federal candidates they ostensibly support.
CAN listed about $31,000 in contributions and independent expenditures last year, compared to $140,000 that it paid to Amagi. The year before, it passed along $12,400 in campaign contributions and paid Amagi $77,100.
Since 2012, PEF has reported about $35,000 in contributions and independent expenditures, and $373,000 in payments to Amagi. It also reported paying Whitney more than $28,000 directly for consulting fees and reimbursement for website hosting, "content creation," and other services.
PEF’s website lists two staff members: Teresa Prior and Andrew Whitney, who are Tyler Whitney’s mother and younger brother, according to public records.
"As a mother of two boys, Teresa knew she could not sit idle and watch while Washington politicians destroyed her children's future," the website says. Property records show Prior lives at the same Bath, Michigan, address that Tyler Whitney has listed on official election documentation.
"Andrew [Whitney] has worked on dozens of local campaigns for the state legislature in addition to campaigns for Congress and President" and is "an organizer of countless rallies and demonstrations against government waste and corruption," PUF’s website says.
A call to Prior’s home phone number was not answered. Efforts to reach Andrew Whitney were unsuccessful.
While the website fails to list the "dozens" of campaigns he has worked on, Andrew Whitney did complete a yearlong probation sentence in 2014 after pleading guilty to a drug offense. He was also convicted of misdemeanor retail fraud in 2010.
The financial ties between Amagi and Tyler Whitney’s political groups have come under scrutiny from conservatives.
"They’re clearly giving their donors the impression they’re donating to help elect conservatives, but what they’re really doing is lining the pockets" of their consultants, wrote a Conservative Review columnist in 2014. "Unless you consider a 3 percent return on investment a wise expenditure, there’s no way to justify supporting these people."
The treasurer for a number of groups that have paid Amagi and appear tied to Whitney’s network is Alexander Hornaday, an attorney who has served as the Denver County Republican Party’s treasurer and a spokesman for the Colorado Log Cabin Republicans.
Hornaday declined to comment on specifics about RAFL or other groups that he counts as clients. "I have a duty of confidentiality to my clients, which even includes the specifics of the type of services I provide for a client," Hornaday said in an email.
He said that he handles financial reporting and compliance for clients and occasionally provides legal advice, but that he is "not involved in the selection of vendors or employees, except to review service contracts."
Public records show collaboration between Whitney and Hornaday on other projects.
The two are listed as the only staff members of Restore American Liberty – Kentucky, an independent issue advocacy group that reported receiving 170 contributions totaling about $5,500 last year. The group reported spending just $550 on a single Facebook ad supporting Republican Matt Bevin’s successful campaign for governor.
Hornaday filed FEC registration paperwork in January for a new PAC, Conservative Freedom Fighters. Like RAFL, the group’s address is listed as Hornaday’s office in Denver.
Whitney isn’t listed on its FEC filing, but he has posted content on the group’s website. That website formerly carried a disclosure—taken down some time after mid-January—saying that it was paid for by the Restore the Constitution Coalition (RCC), another group that lists Hornaday as its treasurer and its address as his Denver office.
Groups that have paid Amagi and enlisted Hornaday’s services as treasurer—RAFL, RCC, and one called the Conservative Liberty Coalition, which also lists its address as Hornaday’s office—all appear to be using the Nationbuilder fundraising platform to solicit donations, and have designed their websites through that platform, often using identical templates.
In addition to Ward, all three have hosted fundraising pages for high-profile conservative politicians with significant grassroots fundraising potential. RCC has lured donors with pledges to support Ward, West, Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tx.), Rep. Louie Gohmert (Tx.), and Rep. Steve King (Iowa). CLC has done the same for West, King, Cruz, Carson, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Hornaday said that a forthcoming RAFL filing with the FEC would show "support for Kelli Ward" but declined to share additional details about that or the other groups’ political activities.
Both CLC and RCC have spent small sums on Facebook ads supporting Cruz and Carson. None of the other candidates listed on their Nationbuilder fundraising pages have received contributions or independent expenditures on their behalf, according to their FEC filings.
Instead, the vast majority of the money raised by the three groups appears to have gone to Amagi. RAFL, RCC, and CLC reported paying the firm a combined $157,500 last year.