Ghost Donors Are Paying For Politicians To Spend Big On Airfare, Hotels And Meals

New York Attorney General Letitia James secured a nearly half billion dollar civil fraud judgment against former President Donald Trump. His business clearly engaged in bank fraud. Yet I’m not entirely comfortable with civil fraud with unclear damages. I don’t like politicians campaigning on a platform of going after a target.

General James painted an investigative target on her own back, and critics have come up with some interesting data about her campaign expenditures. But it points to a broader issue of gaps in political transparency laws.

Here’s her campaign’s 2023 hotel spending:

I can see a New York State Attorney General fundraising on Martha’s Vineyard (Edgartown)! The extend to which she spends on Puerto Rico hotels is… surprising.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure that $84,000 in airfare over 5 years is all that much! Based on current rules it wouldn’t even consistently retain top tier elite status.

Her meal expenses seem excessive, but mostly I’d criticize her choice of Dave & Buster’s. Meanwhile Tony Soprano’s office was in a night club, the Soprano crime family was subordinate to New York, so why not the NY State AG?

Now what struck me as interesting, and what’s less travel-related than the criticism of the state AG’s campaign spending on airfare, hotels and meals, is that it appears a substantial amount of money is coming into the campaign from ghost donors, and also that this seems not to be at all uncommon (for campaigns of both parties).

A “ghost donor” is an identity that makes hundreds or thousands of small contributions to a campaign, and indeed to several campaigns, where the actual person attached to that identity doesn’t know anything about it.

In most states (and at the federal level) you can’t just make a $100,000 donation to a political campaign. So that $100,000 gets broken up into small donations from people that don’t even know they’re making them. That circumvents the contribution limit, and conceals the donation source.

Nobody is having their money stolen – they’re just having their name used on donor lists submitted to election officials. And since the amounts are small, no one tallies them up to see if a given individual has exceeded their limits, or whether they’re the ‘true donor’ behind the funds. Where is the money coming from? Who knows? Is it foreign sources? Maybe? It’s clearly money being given to campaigns that couldn’t be donated legally.

Illegal donations to politicians are hardly new! Some route foreign dollars through businesses of relatives, or foundations. I know of one powerful state-level politician who died and left their sole heir a… treasure map. But ‘ghost donors’ does seem like it’s going to become a bigger story. But because the news hook here is linked to a Democrat that went after a former Republican President it might get too wrapped up in partisan politics and dismissed, when it’s certainly bipartisan.

As for the travel, I recently wrote that the U.S. Drug Czar refuses to fly Southwest and insists that his staff accompany him in government SUVs when attending weekend social events.

While Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen flies coach, there are trappings of power that many get attached to. Secretary Yellen, a former chair of the Federal Reserve, doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone and doesn’t need a first class seat to be important.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. LBJ said if you’re going to kill a rattlesnake with a hoe, you’ve got to do it in one blow. Ms. James has pursued Trump like Javert chasing Jean Valjean, and has little to show for it. Trump is still at liberty, running for President, leading in the polls and seemingly impervious to crippling financial fines. Let her luxuriate in Puerto Rico as she contemplates her inability to fulfill her professional goals.

  2. The sad issue is having so much money sloshing around all campaigns. The even sadder issue is that advertising is so important in politics versus having voters who actually think about what they want their representatives to do, what are the concerns in the jurisdiction, and where do these politicians stand on them. Politics has become an expensive game, not a path to really helping everyone. That said, there is no question in the upcoming election between a man who is trying to hold things together and a pathological liar with the mentality of an angry 5 year old with a box of matches.

  3. Trump is bad but his valuation of his real estate hurts nobody. Banks still make money off the loans and charged enough interest. It is a witch hunt as against a bad man.

  4. “Clearly engaged in bank fraud”? Really? But no bank could come forward to claim they were defrauded? News to you: the so called “fraud”…differences in opinion of valuations…could be applied to every single real estate developer in the state of New York. It was purely stalinist “show me the man and I’ll show you the crime”, and any reasonable person knows it. After all, the DA campaigned on getting trump somehow, and not on this charge.

    Meanwhile, Dems still are prattling on about election interference to their sheep like followers, while as usual being guilty of what they accuse others of.

  5. Gary,
    Have you ever applied for a credit card or a mortgage?
    You’re under arrest.

  6. With AI, things are going to get worse. No self driving cars nor self flying airplanes but clever lies without end.

  7. @drrichard,
    Let me know when the last time Biden said something true was. I have not heard anything true from his mouth. Many things that Trump said were true, yet the media portrayed them as false. 
    The problem is that people believe in the media when it speaks nothing but lies, lies, and more lies. 
    Any one who seeks truth should be scared of what’s happening in the border, in the elections, in the courts, in the media, in the big tech.

  8. These are lifestyle expenses for the politicians and because those expenses aren’t paid with earned income, the politician avoids personal. Income tax. Flying private, fancy hotels, expensive dinners, etc. – if we had a functional IRS, you would think that they should be investigating. Maybe this blogger showing the James’s data should file an IRS whistle-blower report and get some money!

  9. @”drrichard” … Good comment until the last sentence , when you repeat superficialities instead of issues ..

  10. @Chris – I have never made false statements on an application for mortgage or credit card. And that’s not even remotely comparable.

  11. So in view of the millions of transactions that can be inferred from the examples cited, the odds are that most of us are already in some huge database as having “donated” to thousands of these candidates, campaigns, committees. I found it interesting that my substantial outrage at being fraudulently represented was quickly eclipsed by my disgust at these people.

    I’m willing to allow that perhaps some candidates don’t understand where the money is coming from, but in the absence of any concern or “investigations” clearly at some level the campaign or political party is choosing to ignore the ludicrously improbable nature of these transactions and shrug, sweep it under the nearest rug, and take the money and run with it.

    I’ll take issue with Gary that “nobody is having their money stolen” – maybe not directly out of our bank accounts, but through the enabling of these awful people to continue their obscene spending on their own personal interests, not to mention the damage such people can do through mismanagement and incompetence.

  12. Have you touched upon former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy had his expensive quasi-staycations at some resort paid for by a super pac?

    Has me curious who is racking up the points from such stays.

  13. for avoidance of doubt, repeating a comment from the source thread, janet yellen can sit in cattle because she’s the size of mouse, so she gets no street cred for doing so

  14. ” His business clearly engaged in bank fraud. ” What? Clearly, you know nothing about criminal law but easily accept what mainstream media says. So much for journalism. Again.

  15. All this makes me sick to my stomach. There is no honor, decency nor morality left in this world.

  16. “His business clearly engaged in bank fraud.”

    You’re so ignorant, it’s almost incomprehensible. This judgment is a total travesty of justice and anyone doing a smidgen of research and viewing it objectively would understand why. Seriously, read something beyond the MSM and you might learn something.

  17. Interesting that she chose AG James when there’s more blatantly illegal options to comment on like Clarence Thomas.

    @Gary – “General James painted an investigative target on her own back”

    So an AG going after a criminal is painting a target on their own back unless the criminal is poor and weak? That’s a pretty skewed perspective.

  18. Trump’s business clearly did not engage in fraud. The judges likely are corrupt. They’ll do anything to persecute him because he is a threat to the establishment and the uniparty. These judges will throw out every precedent, make up new precedent, and twist and turn any law just to go after Trump.

    If Trump gets in again, it’s likely every judge and prosecutor who played along with the fraud against Trump will be indicted for fraud, criminal violation of civil rights, among other charges.

  19. Hmmm . . . probably not fraud. Banks accept borrower’s valuation and generate fees. They do not get their own appraisal? The banks knew what they were doing. Usually do. It’s not fraud if no one is deceived.

  20. @jack the lad – wasn’t just overstating valuation, there were exaggerated (false) FACTS about the properties represented. I don’t like civil fraud pursued by the state. But definitely fraud.

  21. This much detail should be done on Clarence Thomas of supreme court. Detail the $500,000 trips he was given.

  22. Either way, R or D . . . as a nation, we’re screwed! “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.” Davy Crockett

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