Political campaign vendors have been screwed out of millions of dollars for decades by deadbeat former candidates. Now one group is trying a different tactic to recoup the money it is owed: hijacking the candidate’s own websites as part of an intense public shaming campaign.
Cole Harris was a self-funded candidate for California lieutenant governor before failing to make the cut for the state’s top two general election runoff contest. Despite his self-professed personal wealth, his campaign racked up seven figures in debt that he is now refusing to repay.
For months, the political firms that worked for Harris had tried to recoup the funds they were owed. But at the end of August, Harris’ legal team let it be known that the campaign wouldn’t be forking over an additional cent.
And so Majority Strategies, a prominent Republican consulting firm that helped run Harris’ digital operation, took action. Using administrator access that it retained from the campaign, the firm changed Harris campaign’s website and social media pages to advertise Harris’s alleged refusal to make his campaign vendors whole.
“Cole Harris owes his campaign vendors and employees at least $1.1 million in unpaid bills,” the campaign website currently blares across the the page, with a link to the campaign’s most recent financial disclosure filing.
Harris’s Twitter and Facebook pages now lead with a link to that updated website and a number of Harris’ more colorful internet posts, including a photo of him bathing naked in a fountain in China.
Harris, through his personal Facebook account, confirmed that the photo was accurate in a comment on the post.
“I was not hacked,” Harris wrote. “However, the administrator of this like page (who was the mole/ hater in my campaign) has now taken me off this account for any type of editing or control in order to try to make it difficult. He continues to try and twist things and have my image be misrepresented.”
The campaign to humiliate Harris into paying his bills is virtually unheard of in contemporary politics, where such matters are usually settled through litigation, arbitration, or simple attrition. And it illustrates the limited recourse that vendors have when clients simply decide not to pay.
“Candidates are generally not personally liable for the debts of their campaign,” explained Brett Kappel, a campaign finance attorney at the firm Ackman, “so suing the defunct campaign is usually a waste of time and money.”
A source familiar with the strategy adopted by Harris' vendors said they contemplated a lawsuit but felt the chances of success were limited. Instead, the source explained, they opted to make it so that Harris would never be able to run for office again—at least with any vendor help.
“Cole Harris’ unwillingness to fairly address this issues has left us with little recourse,” a spokesman for Majority Strategies told The Daily Beast in a statement. “He ran on a platform of accountability and being a trusted steward of the public’s money. We hope candidate Harris can influence businessman Harris to do the right thing and pay his debts.”
Harris was a risky bet to begin with. The head of a private investment firm in Glendale, he brought personal wealth to his bid for lieutenant governor but little else. He had scant political history, and his Instagram feed is full of uncomfortable motivational quotes, such as: “Hustle or stay broke & mad at other people doing their thing” and “I WORK HARDER THAN AN UGLY STRIPPER.” On Facebook, he once penned a post titled “Voodoo Penis.”
Other social media posts contained the types of viral factoids that sound profound until you think about them for a few seconds. “90% of food in supermarkets did not even exist 75 years ago,” read one of Harris’s Instagram posts. Taken literally, of course, the post vastly understated the number—no supermarket in America sells items that have sat on shelves for 75 years.
Despite those flags, the Republican Party of California endorsed him and top consultants signed up for his long-shot bid. The fact that he was personally wealthy, one operative told The Daily Beast, made it seem almost certain that he’d be competitive and they’d get paid.
Harris ultimately spent $2.2 million of his own money on his bid. But he stopped making those expenditures in late May, weeks before the primary, where he would finish a close third. And then, after the primary concluded, just ghosted on the tab he’d run up. As of June 30, the end of the most recent reporting period, Harris was still on the hook for $1.1 million, according to state campaign finance records.
Harris did not return request for comment. But at the end of August, Ashlee Titus, the treasurer for the his campaign, officially notified at least one subcontractor that it would not be receiving any of the funds it was owed. The reasoning, Titus wrote in a letter obtained by The Daily Beast, was that the contractor (in this case, Majority Strategies) had made expenditures “without the approval” of the campaign.
A spokesperson for Majority Strategies would not comment on the particulars of the contract it signed. The firm is still owed about $423,000 from Harris’ campaign. But some smaller-sized operations are also waiting for their payments, including Iowa-based vendor CampaignHQ, which is in the hole for more than $150,000, and Deep Root Analytics, based in Arlington, Virginia, which is still owed $115,000.
“He made all kinds of promises,’ said a high ranking Republican operative with knowledge of the dispute, “that he would have tens of millions of his own money to invest in the race. And the guy was a fraud. He’s a total fraud.”
Campaign vendors have been stiffed in the past. Most infamously, Newt Gingrich just decided to not pay 114 businesses and consultants a collective $4.6 million from his 2012 presidential campaign. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro stopped filing periodic reports years ago for her still-active 2006 Senate campaign committee, but as of its last FEC filing in 2011, the campaign still owed its vendors $589,000.
Unlike Gingrich and Pirro, though, Harris self-funded his bid. His personal financial disclosure statement with California regulators says he owns stakes worth more than $1 million in two companies (there is no upper range provided). And on his social media pages he has a penchant for flaunting his personal wealth, with photos showing him posing with expensive sports cars and visiting exotic destinations abroad.
As he wrote in one Instagram post, “Stack that money, take care of your responsibilities, and mind your business.”