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Home American Conservative Union CPAC gets cozy with opaque groups and foreign sponsors
CPAC gets cozy with opaque groups and foreign sponsors

CPAC gets cozy with opaque groups and foreign sponsors

President Donald Trump greets supporters during CPAC 2019 (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

This week marks another year of America’s long-running gathering of conservative activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Similar to prior years, this year’s CPAC is flush with cash from controversial figures and obscure groups alike.

Five organizations paid at least $125,000 each to be listed as top sponsors. That earns them a slot on the convention’s website just under organizer American Conservative Union and its partner, a medical bill sharing organization called Liberty Healthshare. These top-tier sponsors include the Republican National Committee as well as conservative allies such as the National Rifle Association

In exchange for the $125,000 sponsorship package, these groups enjoy perks such as on-site branding and public acknowledgment as well as branded social media posts. Those show up on Twitter, which has a policy against promoted political advertising, and Facebook, which recently instituted new disclosure rules for politically-focused sponsored content. 

A new name among CPAC’s top sponsors is KCPAC Korea, one of the American Conservative Unions’ recent overseas offshoots of its hallmark event. The first KCPAC, held last October, was co-sponsored by the New Institute, a conservative training institute with little paper trail. Its scant website directs potential donors to mail checks to the fourth floor of a Hawaii condo overlooking the beach, a floor it shares with a spa and wellness center. Many of the New Institute’s training materials are drawn from the Leadership Institute, a decades-old nonprofit that provides training for conservative activists. 

CPAC’s top-billed sponsors also include a Japanese technology conglomerate composed of Japan’s top social media platform, OKWave, along with a platform that pays cryptocurrency for watching ads called Coban and a cryptocurrency company called Liberty that also sponsored CPAC in 2019. Liberty’s founder, Japanese businessman Jikido “Jay” Aeba published a book called “The Trump Revolution” in March 2016 that “advocated Trump as being the long-awaited president” and holds himself out as an advisor to the RNC. The RNC did not respond to request for comment prior to publication. 

Aeba founded the Japanese Conservative Union in 2015 as the counterpart of the American Conservative Union, and that group has held its own version of CPAC called J-CPAC since 2017. The original event kicked off with its first session focused on “Russia-Gate and the Media” featuring Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who disclosed meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe about tax policy. The second-day opening was headlined by Rick Grennell, then-Ambassador to Germany who has since come under scrutiny for undisclosed foreign influence work. Grennell, the new acting intelligence director for the Trump administration, is slated to speak at CPAC 2020. 

The new overseas ventures and sources of foreign-tied funding mark a notable shift from prior years when ACU chair Matt Schlapp was criticized for the overlap between CPAC sponsors and his lobbying clients. After years of being bankrolled by big-name American donors dominated by military-focused foreign policy hawks and non-interventionist contingents wary of any U.S. overseas involvement, CPAC has embraced a more global agenda. 

Even the NRA disclosed spending on foreign fundraising for the first time in the gun rights group’s history as it faced a multimillion-dollar shortfall for a third consecutive year in its most recent tax returns

Many of the foreign activists who helped facilitate CPAC events abroad are slated to participate in this year’s U.S. counterpart. Speakers include Andrew Cooper of Australia’s ​LibertyWorks, which co-sponsored CPAC Australia last August, and Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who helped facilitate CPAC Brazil last October. Miklos Szantho, an ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who helps facilitate his tightly-controlled media empire, is also scheduled to speak. 

Domestic CPAC sponsorship support

WinRed shelled out $60,000 to be a “partnering sponsor” at the conference this year. So far in the 2020 election cycle, the conservative online fundraising conduit created to counter ActBlue on the left raised $102.5 million. WinRed president Gerrit Lansing is giving a talk on the first day of CPAC about using social media fundraising tactics. Multiple lawmakers who use WinRed are slated to speak at the conference including President Donald Trump, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). 

A pro-electoral college organization called Save our States spent $60,000 to support CPAC, and is sponsoring multiple events to defend the electoral college. The group’s executive director Trent England is also on a panel called “‘Every Vote Counts,’ Especially When the Counts Are Rigged.” 

Another $28,000 each comes from CPAC’s “supporting sponsors,” which include Turning Point USA and 2ndVote, a conservative watchdog group tracking corporations that support liberal causes. For $7,000 “participating sponsors” get perks including brand recognition throughout the conference, a booth and a marketing email sent to CPAC 2020 attendees. Participating sponsors at the 2020 CPAC include an organization that markets Trump-themed paraphernalia called The Trump Towel and AdDank, an online influencer advertising service. 

Conservative media group Project Veritas, which secretly records journalists and publishes their candid comments, is another “participating sponsor” this year. The group was accused of running a sting operation in November 2017 in which it falsely accused Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of statutory rape in an attempt to discredit the Washington Post. 

The organization reported bringing in close to $8.7 million in 2018 in its 990 forms to the IRS. Founder James O’Keefe, who reported an income of more than $387,000, is slated to give a short talk at CPAC on Friday afternoon and do a book signing on Saturday.  

Freedom of Speech in America is the only sponsor at the supporting level that does not include a link to its website on CPAC’s online sponsor list but speakers at the group’s panel include Austrian native Elisabeth Sabadtisch-Wolff, who is known for anti-Muslim activism, and British national Katie Hopkins, who has been criticized for racist comments. The panel also includes Claire Lopez of The Center for Security Policy, a “designated hate group” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and a longtime sponsor of CPAC that shelled out $12,000 for recognition during the 2020 conference. 

Other groups and firms shelling out $12,000 as contributing sponsors of CPAC 2020 include Selective Search, a high-end matchmaking service that applies “executive recruitment methodologies to achieve an industry-high 87% success rate in helping sophisticated individuals find long-term relationships,” and a firm called Forthright Strategy.

An investigation by OpenSecrets found that Forthright Strategy lists the same address as so-called scam PACs that collect millions of dollars but contribute significantly less to candidates. In the 2018 election cycle, the firm made close to $1.4 million. Several of the firm’s top clients such as VIGOP, Supporting Electing American Leaders and Special Operations for America list the same DC address as the firm. 

This isn’t the first time CPAC featured obscure groups that pay big money to sponsor the conference. Last year, a little known company called Dragging Canoe – Pigeon Forge was one of CPAC’s $250,000 platinum sponsors despite having no website and little paper trail. The company said it would open an amusement park this year, but there is still no website, location or status of the venue’s opening. 

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