ProPublica’s ongoing coverage of the 45th President.
A group that gave more money to one of President-elect Trump’s fundraising efforts than any other political action committee failed to disclose its donors before Election Day and exceeded caps on contribution amounts.
America Comes First PAC was created in early August. But for the next three months, it disclosed nothing about how much it raised, who its donors were or how it was spending its money.
That eventually prompted a warning from federal regulators.
“It is important that you file this report immediately,” read an October 31 letter from the Federal Election Commission.
But Election Day came and went — and still nothing.
As federal regulators continued to wait for the required disclosures, the group posted a photo two days after the election showing Trump meeting with America Comes First secretary David Schamens.
It wasn’t until this week that the group finally began filing the disclosure forms. The filings show that the bulk of individual donations to the group came from Schamens.
In the early 1990s, Schamens was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of securities fraud. In a settlement, he did not admit to the allegations but agreed to be barred from associating with investment companies or securities brokers. Schamens currently is director of a New Jersey technology company that caters to financial institutions and securities traders.
The money raised by America Comes First — $315,601 total — is a tiny fraction of what Trump and his supporters raised overall. But Daniel Weiner, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, called the group’s actions “tremendously concerning.”
“Basically they’re not obeying any campaign finance law whatsoever,” Weiner said. “That’s why we have disclosure requirements, because we want to see who is influencing the election and we want that disclosed in a timely manner so voters can make an informed choice.”
Weiner said it’s hard to predict how much the group could be fined by the FEC. He urged Trump’s fundraising committee to return the contributions given the apparent problems, but said it’s not clear the law requires them to.
Schamens told ProPublica that waiting until after the election to disclose the source of the group’s funding was unintentional and caused by poor bookkeeping. (The PAC also had not filed another required report that was due midnight Thursday.)
“It’s not a big deal,” he said.
Schamens contributed at least $202,000 of the PAC’s total fundraising haul, according to FEC reports, although $45,000 of that appeared to be refunded to him.
Another $45,000 came from Sokal Media Group, an automotive advertising agency. The group’s filing attributed another $55,000 to “Kinderton Banjing Transfer” — with an address that corresponds to a Bank of America branch in North Carolina. Schamens could not explain what Kinderton Banjing Transfer was.
All those contributions exceed the $5,000 legal limit on donations to groups such as America Comes First PAC.
The group in turn donated to Trump Victory, a joint committee that raised money for the campaign, the national party, and state-level party groups. The America Comes First PAC donated $115,000 to Trump Victory, putting it ahead of the second largest PAC donor, Ohio mining corporation Murray Energy, at $100,000. (Here’s a helpful Wall Street Journal video explaining how the Trump Victory committee worked.)
Trump, like Hillary Clinton, also had a second joint committee that partnered solely with the national party, and not any state parties.
Trump’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
Along with donating to Trump’s joint committee, Schamens said the PAC produced ads targeting the Facebook pages and email inboxes of voters in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Thirty-second spots the group produced paint Hillary Clinton as insensitive about the Americans killed during the embassy attack in Benghazi and careless with sensitive emails.
“National security is not a joke,” stated one. “Trump takes it seriously.”
The filings also show a payment to the Lexington Dispatch, a daily newspaper in North Carolina, for “media expenses.”
None of those advertisements boosting Trump appear to have been reported as required. When committees spend at least $200 for independent advertisements intended to elect or defeat a candidate, FEC rules require disclosure of that specific spending within 24 to 48 hours of the ads running. America Comes First PAC has filed no independent expenditure reports with the FEC.
Any disclosures that come now, Weiner said, have little use.
“We want voters to be able to make the decision when they vote,” he said. “The damage is done and you can’t unring the bell.”
Schamens described his current company, TradeStream Analytics, as a technology company that optimizes and expedites securities trading. He said since 2008, his customers have been beleaguered by stricter regulatory enforcement, including on high-frequency trading.
“It’s incredibly unfair to our customers,” he said. “Our customers have been absolutely harassed to no end.”
Schamens said he has expressed those concerns — along with his frustrations about his company’s intellectual property not being protected — to the Trump camp in “just general conversations here and there.” When doing so, he said he was only representing himself, not the PAC. The PAC’s agenda, he said, focuses on curbing foreign aid, illegal immigration and wasteful military spending.
He said the photo of his meeting with Trump, posted two days after the election, was actually taken sometime in October, at a fundraiser he attended not representing the PAC, but as an individual donor. Schamens gave $27,000 to Trump Victory on Oct. 18, 2016.
The photo shows Trump seated at the center of a boardroom table, surrounded by 10 other men, all with bottles of water and leather portfolios.
“President-elect Donald Trump met with ACF’s Dave Schamens,” the caption reads, “to get insight on what he thinks will help make this country greater.”
Update, Dec. 10, 2016: David Schamens said Friday evening the PAC's filings with the FEC were inaccurate, and that most of the donations did not come from him personally. As the group’s treasurer, he is responsible for accurately filing to the FEC. He said he would amend the filings next week.