Donald Trump's campaign and the Republican National Committee have paid at least $1.8 million to a political operative whose roster of companies include several that have been repeatedly investigated for voter registration fraud, even as Trump has complained that the election is rigged against him.
Three employees of Strategic Allied Consulting, a firm owned by conservative operative Nathan Sproul, pleaded guilty in Florida four years ago to felony charges related to altering and destroying scores of voter registration forms. There were no formal actions against the firm.
Yet recent federal campaign finance reports reviewed by The Associated Press show Sproul is now back on the RNC's payroll, this time with a firm named Lincoln Strategy Group, a renamed version of his former firm Sproul & Associates, an Arizona-based firm that was investigated for alleged voter registration misconduct in Nevada and Oregon.
Although Sproul was never charged in the 2012 Florida case, GOP officials and Mitt Romney's presidential campaign considered the charges against his employees alone serious enough to fire his company in 2012. The chairman of the RNC said this week he didn't know Sproul's firm has been rehired. Neither the Republican Party nor the Trump campaign would discuss the specifics of the work Sproul or the firm is doing and in what states.
"We have zero tolerance for any threat to the integrity of elections," Sean Spicer, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, told the AP in September 2012. "When we were informed of an alleged incident we immediately cut all ties to the company."
The RNC paid Sproul's company a total of $1.2 million in October for get-out-the-vote efforts. Records show Donald J. Trump For President, Inc., paid another $600,000 to Lincoln Strategy on Oct. 27.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said he didn't know his organization was still doing business with Sproul.
RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters declined to provide specific details about Sproul's current work for the party. In past years, RNC's full spending with Sproul's firms wasn't disclosed in campaign finance reports until after the election.
"This is a coordinated expenditure with the campaign," Walters said, referring to the practice of political parties working with campaigns to raise and spend money. "Similar to 2012, coordinated expenditure decisions are joint decisions, the RNC does not have sole decision authority."
Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said, "This is a firm that we work with to execute door knocking."
Sproul, 44, said in a statement Friday that his companies had been "cleared of any and all wrongdoing," and that any past accusations against his firms had been "utterly discredited."
"Lincoln Strategy upholds the strictest anti-fraud standards," Sproul said. "Because of our strict standards, our company immediately refers people to law enforcement and election officials when there is any indication of improper activity."
In the 2012 Florida case, three employees of Sproul's firm pleaded guilty to forging voter registrations, saying their supervisors had demanded it. But after a two-year investigation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it found no evidence that Sproul's firm specifically directed its employees to turn in the faked forms. Sproul has said the firm employed about 2,000 people.
A search of online help-wanted ads shows Lincoln Strategy Group is now hiring in North Carolina, Colorado, Missouri and other swing states, offering "Great Pay!" to those available to go door-to-door to canvass voters for conservative causes
."Make America Great Again $20/HR Canvassing," reads a recent ad posted on Craigslist in Raleigh, North Carolina, offering full-time and part-time jobs through Election Day.
A veteran Republican operative from Arizona, Sproul has worked closely with dozens of state and national GOP campaigns, specializing in organizing voter registration drives and outreach efforts targeting evangelical Christians and social conservatives. He told AP his companies have employed more than 10,000 grassroots campaign workers over the last decade.
Operating under numerous corporate names, Sproul's firms also have a history of allegations of voter registration fraud. In a 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sproul acknowledged he set up multiple companies at the RNC's request, because the Republican Party wanted to obscure its ties to what he called baseless allegations of his firms.
In California, Oregon, Nevada and Florida, Sproul's workers were sometimes investigated on suspicion of forging signatures, destroying Democratic voter registrations or changing the addresses of legitimately registered voters without their consent, according to former employees, state investigations and news reports.
Workers said they were paid for collecting only Republican registrations, providing no incentive to turn in those from Democrats. There was never a formal state legal action against his firms.
In an FBI interview related to a 2012 investigation of illegal campaign coordination in Arizona, however, Sproul acknowledged a pattern of law-breaking involving dozens of people hired by his firms, according to a transcript reviewed by the AP.
The number of his employees who have been referred to prosecutors for possible criminal activities over the years "is closer to 100 than it is to zero," he told the FBI agent, according to the transcript.
The Federal Election Commission has also found "there is reason to believe" Sproul violated election law by spearheading a Republican effort to get Ralph Nader on Arizona's ballot in 2004, according to a public FEC letter to Sproul. The commission ultimately dropped the matter without imposing any punishment.