An alleged troll farm operator has received more than $2 million to boost the candidacy of GOP Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake — and no one is sure where the money is coming from.
A former Turning Point USA employee, Arizona state Rep. Jake Hoffman was banned from Facebook in 2020 for operating a troll farm. More recently, he was named on the false slate of electors put forward to overturn the 2020 election and secure Donald Trump’s reelection.
Over the past two months, Hoffman’s political advertising firm 1TEN has received $2.1 million to build websites, design digital ads, and purchase cable and broadcast advertising spots to boost Trump-endorsed candidate Kari Lake in her campaign against Karrin Taylor Robson for the GOP candidacy for governor of Arizona.
The Put Arizona First PAC registered in late April and began making payments to 1TEN in the first week of May. It reported a sole source of funding, but the true identity of that contributor is still unknown. In FEC reports, the PAC identified SPH Medical, a PPE and medical supplies company, as its only donor. But the filing listed the company’s address as a UPS Store in Phoenix, and SPH Medical appears to be based in California. There’s no SPH Medical registered with the Arizona Corporation Commission, according to public records. Speaking first with Azcentral on Tuesday and later with The Verge on Wednesday, Tony Coleman, the owner of the California-based SPH Medical, claimed that his company did not make those contributions.
“No, we did not make the donation. No, we’re not involved in any political races anywhere,” Coleman told The Verge on Wednesday. “We’re not involved in politics at all.”
Hoffman did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge on Thursday asking whether he knew the true identity behind the PAC’s donor.
The mystifying donations raise new questions about coordination between the Lake campaign and Turning Point USA, which is forbidden from endorsing candidates except through its political action wing.
Since last fall, Lake’s connections to Turning Point USA have been scrutinized by critics who fear the two organizations are unlawfully working in tandem. The student activist organization, a tax-exempt 501c3, is prohibited under federal law from publicly supporting or endorsing political candidates. But that hasn’t stopped many Turning Point executives, like CEO Charlie Kirk, and employees from inviting Lake on their podcasts or supporting her candidacy online. On June 29th, Hoffman personally endorsed Lake’s candidacy.
ENDORSEMENT: Rep. Jake Hoffman!
From Jake: “A lot of good, principled, stalwart conservatives were supporting Matt. Matt was proven. He is out of the race now. Kari Lake is the ONLY America First candidate in the race now.”
Let’s WIN big! #RedWave pic.twitter.com/8bJLAQb2Ij
— Kari Lake for AZ Governor (@KariLake) June 29, 2022
“There is definitely a cozy relationship between Kari Lake’s campaign and Turning Point that merits investigation,” Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based political consultant who previously worked for Senate candidate Blake Masters, told The Verge on Wednesday. “If they’re not dating, they’re flirting.”
Hoffman has played a key role in Turning Point’s nonprofit advocacy, in part because of his willingness to break platform rules on behalf of conservative causes. Hoffman’s 2020 Facebook ban came because of work his previous firm, Rally Forge, did on behalf of Turning Point Action, the political advocacy branch of the conservative student activist group Turning Point USA. Reports found that Rally Forge employed people, many of them teenagers, to post comments in support of former President Donald Trump and other conservative causes across hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts and pages.
As part of Facebook’s enforcement decision, Hoffman, Rally Forge, and a number of people working on behalf of the firm lost their personal Facebook and Instagram pages. A source with knowledge described the “troll farm” operation to The Verge earlier this year, explaining that dozens of phones sat in the Rally Forge office as two-factor authentication devices for the hundreds of accounts. Hoffman was also banned from Twitter.
Despite the platform bans, Hoffman has continued his electoral marketing work. Shortly after Rally Forge was banned in 2020, a source familiar with the situation told The Verge that Hoffman rebranded the previous firm under the name 1TEN, after the Galatians 1:10 Bible verse. On May 2nd of this year, four days before the Put Arizona First PAC made its first payment to Hoffman, the 1TEN website, touting its ability to “grow movements from birth to epic” (1Ten.io), was taken offline.
In screenshots of the 1TEN website obtained by The Verge in April, the firm displays three advertisements it presumably made for Turning Point USA, Turning Point Action, or its sister organization, Students for Trump. One image shows a billboard supporting Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court while another displays a Turning Point USA Instagram post that said “Guns have two enemies: Rust & Politicians.”
The troubling new Put Arizona First PAC donor disclosures have escalated concerns from state and national political groups about Lake’s coziness with Turning Point. As early as last September, Tyler Montague, president of the Public Integrity Alliance, wrote a letter to Turning Point USA CEO Charlie Kirk and the organization’s board of directors calling into question the nonprofit’s relationship with the Lake campaign. Specifically, Montague noted how the organization ran paid Google ads in support of Lake’s candidacy and invited her to speak at its events between April and July of last year. Last month, American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC, filed a complaint with the IRS requesting that the agency open an investigation into whether Turning Point USA violated its nonprofit tax status by cozying up with Republican candidates, including Lake.
“Turning Point USA has clearly coordinated with the Kari Lake campaign and violated its tax-exempt nonprofit status, intervening politically on behalf of their favored Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate,” Aidan Johnson, an American Bridge spokesperson, told The Verge on Thursday.
Multiple Turning Point employees left the organization to work on Lake’s campaign, the letter noted. Other current staffers, like Benny Johnson, have repeatedly expressed support for her campaign. Arsenal Media Group, a political video production and marketing firm that Johnson formerly claimed to have co-founded, has been paid over $200,000 for content creation and other administrative and “professional” services, according to Lake’s most recent campaign finance disclosure. In April, The Verge reported that Arsenal employees were not receiving their paychecks on time, and many of the staffers described a toxic work environment, primarily when working alongside Johnson.
Reached for comment, the Lake campaign reiterated that campaigns and PACs are forbidden from coordinating. “You’re asking questions this campaign doesn’t and will never have the answers to,” Ross Trumble, Lake’s communications director told The Verge over email Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Public Integrity Alliance filed a fresh complaint to the Arizona secretary of state against the Put Arizona First PAC, accusing the group of illegally hiding the source of its donations, first reported by The Arizona Republic. Montague requested that the complaint be forwarded to the Arizona attorney general’s office for potential prosecution.
With former President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence set to hold dueling rallies in Arizona this weekend, the Republican gubernatorial primary has become a test of Trump’s endorsement power and the future direction of the party. In a surprising turn of events on Monday, Pence endorsed Robson, Trump-backed Lake’s opponent. In a statement, Pence called Robson “the best choice for Arizona’s future.”