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Besieged Campaign Tech Company ElectionMall Has Had A Troubled History

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, January 31 2014

ElectionMall, the otherwise low-profile campaign technology company in Washington, D.C., hit the headlines recently when a criminal complaint against its Founder and CEO Ravi Singh was unsealed, revealing that the Justice Department had charged him with illegally helping a foreigner to influence the election process in San Diego during the 2012 and 2013 election cycles through an independent political action committee.

This isn't the first time that the company has been involved in shenanigans.

George Washington University's Associate Professor of Political Management Michael Cornfield worked at ElectionMall between November 2006 and September 2007 as its vice president of public affairs, where he tried to help the firm to raise venture capital, and acquire more clients. He also provided the company with some strategic advice at the time, he said in an e-mail. Like Singh, Cornfield was one of the few people who understood early on the significance of the Internet and digital technologies, and how they would revolutionize advocacy campaigns and elections. Despite not being paid, he carried on working for the company, and generated publicity for it with interviews with publications like Mother Jones.

However, his relatively brief tenure at the company didn't end well. After just three months, ElectionMall stopped paying Cornfield because of its financial struggles at the time, Cornfield told me Friday. Nevertheless, he carried on working at ElectionMall until the Fall, when he left to take another job.

Cornfield said that when he quit, the company tried to bully him and his next employer.

"When I resigned to take another position, ElectionMall's counsel sent me and my future employer letters inaccurately describing the terms of my employment, and threatening legal action against us were I to be hired," he wrote in an e-mailed statement. "At this point, I ceased all contact with Ravi Singh. After my lawyer documented to ElectionMall's counsel that the company had violated my employment contract, I did not hear from them again."

(Apart from the contract dispute and the lack of payment however, Cornfield added that he saw nothing illegal occur while he was at the company.)

If it is continuing to struggle financially, that could explain why Singh allegedly decided to get involved in the activities in San Diego in 2012 and 2013, where the FBI charges that ElectionMall accepted "approximately" $190,000 in October 2012 from a company based in Mexico in connection with the alleged crimes. The company belonged to a "foreign national," according to the complaint, which didn't name the person. But local papers in the San Diego area have fingered a Mexican businessman of Japanese descent named Susumo Azano, who according to those accounts wanted to build an extensive development in the area. Federal election law prohibits foreigners from donating to US political campaigns on any level.

The FBI's complaint said that that amount was never reported by the PAC that was trying to get an unnamed candidate elected.

The complaint states that Singh and his company ElectionMall worked with retired San Diego cop Ernesto Encinas to illegally funnel the foreign national's money into local campaigns to influence the outcome in favor of Encinas and Azano's candidate picks. It states that ElectionMall was paid by the "foreign national" for online advertising in the form of display, banner and text ads, and AdWord placements through Google. But none of this expenditure was reported in any official filings. Among other things, the FBI also alleges that ElectionMall engaged in a social media campaign promoting one of the candidates, and that it was also paid for by the foreign national.

The complaint doesn't name the favored candidates, but U-T San Diego has identified them as San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who was running for Mayor in 2012, former Mayor Bob Filner, and Mayoral Candidate Nathan Fletcher, . The non-profit investigative news outlet Voice of San Diego points to Rep. Juan Vargas, (D-Calif.) as the other likely candidate that the instigators were trying to influence. (None of the candidates have been tied directly to these activities.)

In 2011, POLITICO reported that Singh promoted his services to candidates in foreign countries by associating himself with President Obama's historic 2008 win. But in fact, Singh and ElectionMall had never worked on the Obama campaign.

The California Republican Party currently uses ElectionMall, but its spokesperson has said that the party is looking for a replacement vendor.

Neither Singh nor his lawyer responded for a request for comment.

Singh was arrested January 17, and released on bail four days later. His release was secured with a bond on his parent's house for $100,000, according to court records. The US Attorney's office notes that he faces up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine.

The campaign guru has been relatively quiet on his social media accounts since his arrest, but on Sunday he tweeted: "We are always tested in this campaign of life" to his audience of 12,000 plus followers.