Kanye West's campaign has hired GOP operative with history of controversial work
Posted September 22, 2020 5:16 p.m. EDT
CNN — Kanye West's presidential campaign has shelled out nearly $1.5 million to a secretive consulting firm in Arizona -- a brand new one, explicitly devoted to independent campaigns but run by a man with a long history of controversial work for Republicans.
Though the firm shows up in campaign finance reports with an address in downtown Tempe, its office doors are emblazoned instead with the name of another company: Lincoln Strategy Group, a GOP consulting firm. The man behind that company has an outsized reputation in politics, despite the fact that he has so far stayed below the radar in his work for the West campaign.
Nathan Sproul, Lincoln Strategy Group's founder and a longtime Republican operative, has a history of working for the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign. Some of his companies have also faced fraud allegations over the course of 15 years, leading to investigations in a handful of states, a Federal Election Commission investigation, charges against a handful of former employees and a messy breakup with the RNC. Sproul, though, has always emerged unscathed legally and neither he nor his companies has ever faced charges. He says his latest company -- called Fortified Consulting -- was formed to help independent campaigns.
"Like its candidate, KANYE 2020 transcends traditional partisan labels and alliances to promote its vision of creating a culture of life," Sproul said in a statement to CNN. "We are proud to serve as a member of Kanye West's team because we believe voters deserve choices in the upcoming election."
But Sproul's work for the West campaign -- and his long track record of working for Republicans -- lends credence to the notion that the West campaign is working to siphon votes from Democratic nominee Joe Biden and boost President Donald Trump's chances of reelection. West's campaign, which has been bolstered by Republican operatives nationwide, isn't holding events or hammering home an agenda with voters. Instead, it appears solely focused on getting on the ballot in as many states as possible.
The Trump campaign has denied it has any involvement in West's presidential bid. West has suggested he will soldier on even though the millions of dollars he has dumped into the race has so far managed to get him on the ballot in just 12 states. Mathematically, the rap superstar cannot win the presidency. He is on the ballot, however, in battlegrounds such as Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado.
"I'm running because I was hit with the idea to run in 2020," West said in a recent interview on the "Cannon's Class" podcast. "Now, the outcome is up to God."
West, via his representative, did not respond to a request for comment.
This election cycle, allegations have emerged across the country of the West campaign submitting fake signatures, duping voters into signing petitions supporting West or, in an instance in Wyoming, telling voters that a signature for West would take votes away from Biden.
Sproul's firm has been handsomely compensated by the West campaign for its key role in ballot access work, but public records do not reveal which firms are working for West in which states. None of the complaints popping up around West's campaign have been directly linked to Sproul or his company, though they are the sort of claims Sproul has faced before in his long history working for Republicans.
Sproul denounced the scrutiny his firms have repeatedly faced during election cycles, saying, "Every four years our efforts on behalf of presidential campaigns are subjected to a predictable series of scurrilous and defamatory political attacks designed to score cheap political points."
Mired in controversy
Evidence of Sproul's past status as a well-connected Republican political operative is on display in the lobby of his second-floor office suite in downtown Tempe. It's in the form of a framed letter on White House stationary from a top adviser to President George W. Bush.
"Thank you for the advice and friendship you have so generously given me during my years here," Karl Rove, a key figure in the Bush White House, wrote to Sproul in 2007. "I appreciate your generosity, candor and kindness."
Over the past three decades, Sproul's companies have hauled in millions for voter registration, polling and political consulting.
It's the kind of behind-the-scenes work that can make or break campaigns. But Sproul has on occasion found himself in the spotlight -- and not for good reasons.
In 2004, Sproul's firms -- prior to Fortified and Lincoln Strategy -- faced allegations that, while running voter registration drives, they destroyed Democrats' registrations and forged registration cards. The complaints set off investigations in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon, according to news reports, government documents and CNN interviews.
In Oregon, Sproul and Associates was the subject of a voter registration fraud investigation by state and federal authorities. The investigation delved into dozens of alleged improprieties, including a claim by a woman who said she and her husband filled out registration cards at the same time -- him as Republican; her as Democrat -- but that only he received a ballot in the mail. Investigators traced the husband's registration back to a subcontractor for Sproul's company but found no evidence that the worker registered the wife.
"There is, however, no evidence indicating what happened to the registration card or establishing affirmatively that [the worker] knowingly or intentionally discarded or destroyed it," according to the report.
Sproul's firm was cleared of any wrongdoing, according to an 11-page letter by a lawyer with the Oregon Department of Justice, which also notes that the investigating agencies in other states "closed their investigations with no criminal prosecution."
But Erik Wasmann, the attorney in charge in Oregon, cautioned that the widespread practice of paying registration workers via a "bounty" system as opposed to an hourly rate created an incentive for potential fraud and abuse.
Under the bounty system, a Sproul subcontractor said she was only paid to register Republican voters and those of other affiliations who said they would vote for Bush for president, the letter stated.
The system, Wasmann wrote, provided an incentive for falsifying registration information in order to get paid, and for discarding accurate cards that wouldn't result in payment due to the voter's political affiliation.
Eight years later, Sproul came under scrutiny again, this time in Florida. Elections officials in Palm Beach County flagged more than 100 suspicious voter registration forms linked to a Sproul company called Strategic Allied Consulting, according to press reports. Potentially problematic forms associated with the firm were discovered soon after in several other Florida counties, according to press reports and records from the Florida investigation.
The Republican Party of Florida, which paid one of Sproul's firms -- Strategic Allied Consulting-- $1.3 million to register and turn out voters, filed a complaint against the company with the state Division of Elections.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation that, according to a 2014 article in the Palm Beach Post, "included a close look at whether Sproul's company orchestrated fraud." Among the allegations: that Sproul's workers had been coached not to sign up Democrats and were provided with a vetting question to weed out supporters of Barack Obama.
Several workers were charged with crimes, including a Palm Beach County man accused of fraudulently registering a string of family, friends and co-workers who later told investigators their registrations were bogus. All three admitted wrongdoing. Two received probation and one was sentenced to 10 days in county jail, records show.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement cleared Sproul and his company of any wrongdoing, according to an FDLE report summarizing the investigation.
"This investigation revealed no evidence of a conspiracy between SAC employees and management to commit voter registration fraud," states the FDLE report. "All employees of SAC were provided with training on Florida law relating to voter registrations, and the investigation determined that those employees identified as possibly having completed fraudulent voter registration applications did so independently and of their own volition."
At the time, Sproul also had contracts with the RNC and Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Both dropped Sproul's firm. Then-RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said at the time, "We have zero tolerance for allegations of impropriety."
When the late Rep. Elijah Cummings -- the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee at the time -- called on Sproul to submit documents and answer questions before Congress, Sproul refused.
The Palm Beach Post reported at the time that Sproul appeared to be taking the scrutiny in stride.
"Unfortunately, the system we have in place doesn't lend itself to people learning the truth. Not when screaming and lies get much more news coverage," Sproul told the Palm Beach Post.
Sproul told CNN this week that each time his companies have come under legal scrutiny, "We have consistently cooperated with authorities to address these false charges and every investigation has shown that allegations against the leadership of Lincoln Strategy Group are completely without merit."
Fast forward four years and Sproul's team was back in lockstep with the RNC.
In 2016, the Trump campaign shelled out $600,000 to one of Sproul's companies for door-knocking services, the campaign said at the time. The RNC paid the company some $1.2 million, according to press reports at the time.
Sproul's creation of Fortified in the waning months of the 2020 presidential campaign is not the first time he formed a new company at the 11th hour.
Strategic Allied Consulting, the company investigated in Florida, was formed in Virginia five months before the 2012 presidential election. Sproul told the Los Angeles Times back then that he was asked by the Republican National Committee to form a new company with a new name to avoid being linked to earlier bad publicity. An RNC spokesman told the paper that he "had no knowledge of Sproul's assertion that the RNC wanted to conceal his identity" according to the article.
This time around a complicated paper trail links Sproul's new firm in with existing business.
FEC records show Fortified's address in Tempe is the same address as Lincoln Strategy. But there are no business records for Fortified on file in Arizona. Instead, it was created in Virginia and lists its "principal office address" as one that traces back to a mailbox service in Alexandria, Virginia. Sproul's name is nowhere to be found in the documents available on Virginia's State Corporation Commission website. Rather, the "organizer" is listed as a person CNN determined is a subordinate in another of Sproul's companies. The contact information on file at the mailbox service is the personal email address of another Sproul employee.
Executives of Lincoln Strategy Group acknowledged that Fortified is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sproul's Lincoln Strategy Group, as is noted in the fine print on its website www.fortifiedconsulting.org. They said the decision to create a subsidiary under a different name was done purely for business reasons and had nothing to do with wanting to avoid bad publicity.
Meantime, Fortified appears poised to rake in even more cash from the billionaire rapper. The campaign owed the company another $1.2 million, according to a belated campaign finance report filed in September.
Allegations of bait and switch
West's campaign has courted controversy since he jumped in the race in July.
The billionaire fashion and music mogul has been a vocal Trump supporter, visiting the President in the Oval Office and donning a Make America Great Again hat, which contributed to suspicions that his campaign was little more than a spoiler to assist the President's reelection effort. His insistence on staying in the race, even though he has no chance of winning, has cemented that view.
Critics claim that West, who said he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is being taken advantage of by Republican operatives. The disorder can cause swings between mania and depression and West has said he does not take regular medication for it.
Practically, West's late start set off a scramble to get him on the ballot. Ballot access is a complicated state-by-state process with requirements such as filing fees or collecting a set number of signatures from voters saying they'd like the option to vote for the candidate.
Petition gathering is also an imperfect business. Campaigns hire consulting companies who often turn to contractors to do the actual signature-gathering, which can make it difficult to determine whether bad practices are the result of a rogue subcontractor or a top-down strategy.
In the case of West's campaign, public documents do not reveal which consulting firms are working in which states. People familiar with the campaign acknowledged that Fortified was involved in ballot access effort across multiple states and the size of payments to Sproul's firm indicate it has played a key role in West's efforts. Sproul, meantime, declined to list the states where his firm took the lead.
He did, though, insist that the allegations against the West campaign were trumped up by Democrats.
"They are so intimidated by Mr. West's candidacy that they are willing to go to great lengths to block a prominent African American candidate from even appearing on the ballot," Sproul said in his statement to CNN. "This is an affront to our democracy and should concern anybody who values free and fair elections."
Ballot access issues are commonly surrounded by legal challenges, but election lawyers said they were struck by how widespread the cases of the West campaign's sloppy -- and in some cases possibly fraudulent -- paperwork appeared to be.
"To put it mildly, the petition was a disaster," said Scott Salmon, a New Jersey attorney with experience in election law.
Salmon filed an objection to West's attempt to appear on the ballot and noted issues with hundreds of signatures on his petition. Some weren't actually residents of the state. And there were large groups of signatures that all appeared in the same distinct handwriting, Salmon said.
"I opened it to a random page, and I noted that half of the signatures on the page, above the 'i' was like a little circle," Salmon said. "I don't know one person that does that much less 10 people in a row who happen to live next door to each other."
West ended up withdrawing his attempt to appear on the ballot and a judge ruled that, due to deficiencies in his paperwork, he wouldn't have qualified.
A person familiar with the West campaign said Fortified was not responsible for the ballot effort in New Jersey.
In Virginia, a judge booted West off the ballot after deciding that a number of oaths the campaign had collected from people promising to represent West in the Electoral College, "were obtained by improper, fraudulent and/or misleading means."
In one complaint, Virginia voter David Pincus said signature collectors approached him asking him to sign a petition to ban West from the ballot.
"The man assured me that the petition was to keep Kanye West off the ballot and even joked that West should stick to music, not run for political office," according to Pincus' written declaration.
In reality, it was a petition to allow West on the ballot and to agree to serve as an elector, according to Pincus' declaration. "I was outraged that there would be two people in my neighborhood aggressively soliciting for signatures under false pretenses," Pincus wrote.
In Wyoming, signature-gatherers asked voters to sign petitions to "take votes" away from Biden, saying the petition would help Trump, according to reporters from the Casper Star-Tribune.
In Wisconsin, one voter said they were told that they were signing a petition to "support increasing minority representation," according to a complaint filed there. Bait-and-switch allegations have also popped in Arizona and Kentucky, according to local news reports.
"We require comprehensive training for all of our staff, subject our work to a rigorous verification process and have a zero tolerance policy for any employee violation of our standards to ensure that we are always following local, state and federal laws," Sproul said in the statement to CNN.
While Sproul's firm has played an important role in ballot access operations, other firms have worked alongside it.
A California firm called Let the Voters Decide also worked on ballot access issues for the West campaign in multiple states. The firm's founder, Mark Jacoby, has also faced past allegations of fraud.
Back in 2008, Jacoby was arrested and charged with four felonies related to voter registration fraud. He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser misdemeanor voter registration fraud charge.
Jacoby caught the attention of authorities that election cycle because of the signature gathering work his then-company, Young Political Majors, was doing. The company's work registering voters on behalf of the California Republican Party sparked a series of complaints. Voters said workers for Jacoby's firm had tricked them into registering as Republicans by telling them they were actually signing petitions for harsher penalties for child molesters, according to press reports at the time.
Representatives for Jacoby have repeatedly insisted his misdemeanor plea is not relevant to his political work.
"Kanye West hired Let the Voters Decide because it is an industry-leading, professional signature gathering company, with a reputation for being able to deliver on short timelines," Mark Jacoby said in a statement to CNN. "Mark Jacoby has more than two decades of experience qualifying ballot initiatives, referenda and candidates throughout the country. He has overseen the collection of tens of millions of signatures for political candidates and issues on both sides of the aisle over the years."
Jacoby's firm did not perform work for the West campaign in New Jersey or Wyoming, nor did it work on the electors effort in Virginia, according to a representative for Jacoby. None of the allegations of fraud surrounding the West campaign have been directly tied to Jacoby or his firm.
'God has made unreal things happen'
West has not been oblivious to the controversy surrounding his no-shot candidacy.
In an interview with The New York Times, West was asked why he was continuing his candidacy since it was too late to make the ballot in every state and he was asked whether he was being exploited by Republicans.
"The first question is incorrect as I am already on some ballots," West told the Times. He did not appear to directly address the question of exploitation.
The musician has devoted little time to any sort of traditional presidential campaign after his South Carolina kickoff event morphed into an erratic and emotional speech. After the appearance, his wife, Kim Kardashian West, noted that her husband was living with bipolar disorder and asked the public for "compassion and empathy."
In an interview on the "Cannon's Class" podcast, West said he and others with mental illnesses are discriminated against.
"It's a superpower," West said. "I'm not even gonna let y'all tell me it's an illness because I'm seeing the truth inside of a phony world."
Two people familiar with West's campaign effort said his 2020 campaign may simply be a test run for a future presidential bid.
"Well, God has made unreal things happen," West said on the podcast, when asked if his 2020 presidential hopes were realistic.
West added, "I shall be president at some point in our lifetimes."