Tea party operative likely behind mysterious web blitz

Ted Cruz consultant appears to be driving fraudulent online payday lender crackdown campaign

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An anonymous online campaign that criticizes a government crackdown on fraudulent Web-based businesses appears to have been developed by the same company that built websites for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other tea party leaders.

"Stop the Choke" is an online blitz that argues the Obama administration’s efforts to cut off fraudsters from the financial system will kill free markets and take away people’s guns. The site pictures President Barack Obama as a marauding Godzilla to punctuate its points. The Center was first to report on the group this week.

The name Stop the Choke refers to Operation Choke Point, a government initiative to sue banks that debit people’s accounts illegally on behalf of companies such as online payday lenders, firearms dealers, porn sites and pyramid-style sales schemes where fraud is common. The crackdown has drawn loud opposition from industry groups that fear legitimate companies will be punished for their peers’ misdeeds. 

The campaign’s website is studiously anonymous. The operators of its Twitter account have ignored multiple public requests for comment. Advocates of transparency in politics say the site is designed to convince visitors that the crackdown has sparked public outrage, but that it was likely created by industries that make money preying on consumers. 

The site includes dozens of images of Cruz, a Texas Republican and tea party leader. Cruz’s office told the Center that the page “is not affiliated with the senator, and we don’t know who set it up.” 

Yet the site appears to have been developed by Harris Media LLC, an agency founded by Republican operative Vincent Harris, who masterminds the Cruz campaign’s digital strategy. Harris previously worked for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, another tea party favorite, and Bob McDonnell, the former Virginia governor who was indicted last month on federal corruption charges. 

Harris did not respond to several requests for comment. 

Harris uses a unique code in its clients’ websites that allows Harris to monitor how users are sharing the content across social media. The same code is embedded in StopTheChoke.com, as well as dozens of sites associated with tea party candidates and issues. Among them: PersonhoodUSA.com (opposing abortion rights), AllenWestForCongress.com (supporting former Rep. Allen West, a tea party Republican from Florida) and TedCruz.org. 

The agency links to sites that it built which employ the same code, including one for Dan Liljenquiest, who attempted unsuccessfully to unseat Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012. 

The same code is used on Harris’ own web site. 

Using the same code across many sites would allow a developer to track social media statistics for all of the sites using the same account, said Jeremy Flynn, who works in publisher services at ShareThis, the company that assigns such codes. 

The use of the same code suggests the sites were built by the same group, Flynn said, although there is a remote possibility that the source code was copied by someone else. Either way, he said, the code’s owner can access data about how StopTheChoke.com is being used. 

StopTheChoke also includes numerous visual elements that mirror Harris’ own site, including a row of static, minimalist icons and a hovering banner in the upper-left that allows readers to sign a petition (on StopTheChoke) or view job listings (on Harris Media’s site). 

Stop the Choke’s Facebook page offers shareable art of President Barack Obama’s head grafted onto Godzilla’s body, with the caption “Operation Choke Point: Obama Destroying America.” In addition to Tea Party rhetoric, the campaign employs images of puppies, kittens and the elderly, suggesting they all would be harmed if the administration continues squeezing fraudulent businesses by prosecuting their partner banks. 

As part of Operation Choke Point, the Justice Department has subpoenaed dozens of banks that work with industries including online payday lenders, firearms dealers and porn sites. At least two banks have settled civil charges that they ignored obvious signs of fraud and continued to debit people’s accounts because they could collect big fees for the service.