Update: FEC Looking at Super PAC That Hyped Penny Stock
by Robert Faturechi and Derek Willis ProPublica, July 7, 2016, 8 a.m.
The phone would ring almost every week with fundraising appeals from a super PAC called Voters for Hillary. Margo Marquess and her husband, Amitava Gupta, backed the presidential campaign of the former Secretary of State, so they were happy to write checks. In all, they gave $6,000.
But the Roanoke, Virginia, couple discovered that Voters for Hillary hadn’t spent any money at all in support of Hillary Clinton, or any other candidate for that matter. The PAC, it turned out, was mainly funded by loans, not donations. Its main effect had been to fuel a sharp spike in the penny stock of a questionable company with close ties to the PAC’s officials.
Now the PAC’s activities, which were reported in May by ProPublica, have caught the attention of the Federal Election Commission. Ann Ravel, one of the FEC’s commissioners, said she’s barred from disclosing whether the PAC is under investigation, but added, “It is definitely on our radar.”
The firm with the penny stock, CrossClick Media of Las Vegas, began issuing press releases in 2014 as Clinton prepared to announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination. The company, which got its start making tables for beer pong, said it looked forward to growing revenue after winning a contract to run a call center for Voters for Hillary. The news lit up some online message boards popular with penny-stock investors. “Soon the 1st lady announces her candidacy and it’s on like Donkey Kong,” read one anonymous posting. “Hope you have some shares :)”
CrossClick’s stock soon rose twelvefold. With tens of millions of shares trading on some days, anyone who sold at the peak could have made tens of thousands of dollars in profits. The shares have since sunk back to being nearly worthless, and one of its executives recently described it as insolvent in court records. It’s unknown who may have profited by selling the stock during the temporary spike.
In its filings with the FEC, the PAC, which formally goes by the name Foundation for a Greater America, shows no evidence of having made any political expenditures. And records indicate the deal between the PAC and the company wasn’t typical for a vendor — almost all the money that the PAC paid to CrossClick was returned to the PAC after the stock spiked.
Kristine Ault, the woman who effectively controls CrossClick, is married to the head of the PAC, Milton Ault III. The PAC’s treasurer, James Hodgins, is the managing member of a firm that had been another major shareholder of the company. And the great majority of the approximately $500,000 the PAC raised before Clinton announced came in the form of loans, not donations, most of them from registered Republicans. Among the lenders was the wife of a stockbroker who federal regulators accused of playing an integral role in a market manipulation scheme in which a stock was pumped up with false publicity, then sold to the public for inflated prices.
Ault and Gary Gottlieb, a CrossClick executive, have maintained that they lost money on the venture, and that their goal was to support Clinton’s presidential bid and run a well-functioning Democratic call center.
Investors have accused the company of misleading them. One major stockholder filed a lawsuit alleging the company manipulated its share price. Other investors have gone to CrossClick’s Facebook page or investor message boards to complain about the company. For the last several months, both the company and the PAC have failed to file required disclosure forms with federal regulators.
Ault, the chairman of the board for the PAC, said he isn’t worried about any potential scrutiny from the FEC because the PAC “did everything legal.” He said the group, which hasn’t filed an FEC report in nearly a year, would make its required disclosures “in the next few weeks.”
Ault also said that the group had shut down fundraising. But Marquess, who provided ProPublica with receipts showing her contributions, said the group had called her asking for donations as recently as May.
Asked to explain, Ault said Voters for Hillary is “no longer in business.” The group’s website is down, but another website under the PAC’s formal name, Foundation for a Greater America, is still soliciting donations in support of Clinton.
Marquess said she and her husband hadn’t given to a super PAC before, and since learning more about Voters For Hillary would be cautious about doing it again. They have now made donations directly to the Clinton campaign. The last time that Voters for Hillary called, her husband demanded a refund. The couple has yet to get a response.
“I don’t know how many suckers are out there,” Marquess said.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.