Bogus donors raise questions

Fictitious names on Obama list

By Michael Luo and Griff Palmer
New York Times News Service / October 10, 2008
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Last December, somebody using the name "Test Person," from "Some Place, UT" made a series of contributions, the largest being $764, to Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign totaling $2,410.07.

Someone else identifying himself as "Jockim Alberton," from 1581 Leroy Ave. in Wilmington, Del., began giving to Obama last November, contributing $10 and $25 at a time, for a total of $445 through the end of February.

The only problem? There is no Leroy Avenue in Wilmington. And Jockim Alberton, who listed both his employer and occupation as "Fdsa Fdsa," does not show up in a search of public records.

A New York Times analysis of campaign finance records this week found nearly 3,000 donations to Obama from more than a dozen people listing apparently fictitious donor information. The contributions represent a tiny fraction of the record $450 million Obama has raised. But the obviously questionable donations - some donors simply entered gibberish for their names - raise questions about whether the Obama campaign is adequately vetting its unprecedented flood of donors.

It is unclear why someone making a political donation would want to enter a fake name. Some perhaps did it for privacy reasons. Another more ominous possibility, of course, is fraud, perhaps in order to donate beyond the maximum limits.

There is no evidence that questionable contributions amount to anything more than a small portion of Obama's fundraising haul. The Times' analysis, conducted over just a few days and looking for obvious anomalies, like names with all consonants, identified about $40,000 in contributions from people who appeared not to exist. And these donations had not been refunded by the campaign as of its last filing with the Federal Election Commission in September.

It appears that campaign finance records for Senator John McCain contain far fewer obviously fake names, although he has also taken in about $200 million in contributions.

Although campaigns have long wrestled to some degree with questionable donations, Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the record-setting number of new donors Obama has drawn, many of them online, presents obvious new challenges to a compliance system stuck in the past.

She pointed out, however, that it would take an extraordinary amount of coordination to pull off widespread fraud.

Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, highlighted the more than 2.5 million donors it has had to wade through and said: "We have been aggressive about taking every available step to make sure our contributions are appropriate, updating our systems when necessary."

But even a contributor who used the name, "Jgtj Jfggjjfgj," and listed an address of "thjtrj" in "gjtjtjtjtjtjr, AP," was able to contribute $370 in a series of $10 donations in August.

A pair of donors named "Derty West" and "Derty Poiiuy," who both listed "rewq, ME" in their addresses and "Qwertyyy" or "Qwerttyyu" as either their employer or occupation, contributed a combined $1,110 in July.

In some cases, records showed some refunds from the Obama campaign, even as other contributions were accepted. Obama officials said most vetting occurs after the donation comes in.

Officials with campaign finance watchdog groups said there is no proof yet that the problem is widespread, but they said the issue certainly warrants additional scrutiny.

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