Here’s an email I found in my spam-infested inbox this morning. The subject line reads “CA High Speed Trains – URGENT FUNDRAISING APPEAL” (the all-caps are in the original):
“Dear Dan Brekke,
You are being sent this email because you have been identified as a business leader in your community of BERKELEY by Californians for High Speed Trains. If you would not like to receive future emails please click the link at the bottom of this email.
Please go to our website to view the latest newsletter.
The message came from a Gmail account, email@example.com.
To start at the beginning, we have a $10 billion bond measure on the November ballot to help fund a high-speed rail service between Northern and Southern California. This email purports to be a fundraising appeal for the yes side.
But right off the top–the email address, the subject line, the lack of detailed information in the note, and the absurd reference to me as a business leader in Berkeley–this looks and sounds like a scam. After checking the whois record for californiahighspeedtrains.com, which shows the domain was registered in May through a third party in Arizona, I checked out the newsletter the mail pointed me to.
The newsletter also raises alarms: the name of the mayor of San Francisco is misspelled. And the site contains this use of experimental English: “Californians Have A History of Supporting Project Like High Speed Rail. From their initial support of the Transcontinental Railroad to Their support of the troops during WWII.” At the very least, the newsletter was slapped together in a hurry.
I looked at the “donate” link in the newsletter. It does indeed send you to a donation page on a site called Californians for High-Speed Trains.” The page contains blanks for all your personal data, including credit card number. But get this: It’s not encrypted. So visitors are being invited to send their information unsecured and in the clear.
I checked the California Secretary of State websites, and there is in fact a group called Californians for High-Speed Trains. Their official site appears to be the same one mentioned in the email. The head of the group is listed as a Robert Pence of Sacramento, and looking him up shows that he has served as a staffer to the state Legislature and has been in the “communications” business for the last four years. He’s been listed as a principal supporter or opponent of other state initiative campaigns before this one.
The Secretary of State’s Cal-Access site has a listing for the group. The organization claims to have had $67,000 in donations from since January 1 to June 30 and to have racked up $111,000 in expenses between April and June. Of the early donations, $53,000 came from a predecessor group, Californians for a Safe and Reliable High-Speed Rail, which appears to have shut down and turned over its bank account to the new outfit. The other 15 grand in early contributions came from a handful of small donations, including $3,000 each from Hewlett-Packard and Oracle. (Just yesterday, the group filed a report saying it had gotten $30,000 from New York engineering and construction firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. What in the world could their interest in the initiative be?)
The expenditures are interesting: $88,000 of the $111,000 spent has gone to half a dozen separate campaign consultants in Sacramento; the biggest amount, $35,000, went to the firm of Townsend, Raimundo, Besler & Usher. The expenditure report also lists $15,000 owed to a political web services firm called Campaign Advantage, part of a company based in Bethesda, Maryland.
I’ve got some calls out about where that mail came from and am trying to find out why the campaign would have created an unencrypted donations page. I’ll post whatever answers I get. The bottom line, for now, is that Californians for High-Speed Trains sure looks like Full Employment for Consultants Inc. For an issue that has a lot of high-profile official support, including that of our governor, this campaign committee seems to be nothing more than a cottage industry for a bunch of Sacramento hangers-on.
[Update 11:26 a.m.: I just got hold of Robert Pence, the head of Californians for High-Speed Trains. He confirmed the campaign sent out the email and said he believes that the email was the work of Campaign Advantage. He said he doesn’t know about the unencrypted donations page. He promised the campaign’s media person, Greg Larson, would be in touch. More soon.]