Georgia firm tied to ethics board member financed scheme to trip up progressive groups
A Roswell firm with ties to a Georgia ethics board member financed a scheme to infiltrate progressive groups to try to catch them on tape advocating to violate election law. Getty Images
Shortly after dawn on a recent steamy July morning, a man who said his name was James Fortune showed up off NC Highway 12 in Cape Hatteras. He had flown in from New York City and rented a car for a rendezvous with an employee of a North Carolina nonpartisan election education organization for a long day of deep-sea fishing.
“I told him this was not a pleasure boat,” the employee told Policy Watch. “We were going to be out in the Gulf current, rough seas.”
North Carolina Policy Watch (a Georgia Recorder sibling outlet) is not naming the employee or the organization because of concerns over security and safety.
No worries, Fortune said, he was an experienced deep sea fisherman, having been to Hatteras many times as a youth.
But Fortune caught nothing except a bad case of seasickness. He spent the next 12 hours 30 miles at sea, alternating between heaving over the side of the boat and sleeping next to his seasickness bag.
This was one of many indications that the mysterious man from New York City might not be who he claimed to be — and that he was on a different type of fishing trip. A Policy Watch investigation has found links between Fortune, who progressive organizations in the state say has tried to infiltrate their groups, and many far-right political operatives, some as high-level as a one-time member of the Trump White House.
The tactic is similar to that used by Project Veritas, which for years has tried to infiltrate progressive organizations and Democratic campaigns in hopes of catching them in violating election law.
Earlier this week, the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal reported that Project Veritas had deployed people who misrepresented themselves as documentary filmmakers to gain access to several progressive and nonpartisan voter education organizations.
Fortune could not be reached via Direct Message on Twitter or email. His phone number is no longer valid.
There is no evidence the organizations took the bait; instead they reported the activity to law enforcement. Now the State Bureau of Investigation in North Carolina has reportedly launched inquiries into Fortune and his tangle of connections. As part of its standard protocol, the SBI does not confirm the existence of investigations.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause, told Policy Watch that his group contacted Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman and that her office has started an inquiry.
Fortune has since disappeared. But he left behind a crucial thread that could unravel what appears to be a sprawling scheme by far-right groups with ties to the Trump administration to entrap several North Carolina nonpartisan voter education nonprofits into violating election laws.
These connections begin with a $3,000 wire transfer to the employee’s North Carolina nonprofit from Fortune’s “business partner,” Blue Sky Med Labs, based in Georgia. Policy Watch received a copy of the transfer receipt and verified the name.
Blue Sky Med Labs, which is located in a dull suburban office park in Roswell, is run by Jason Boles, according to Georgia Secretary of State records. Those same state records show Boles is entwined with more than 50 organizations and political campaigns, including that of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial QAnon candidate for a Georgia congressional seat; and a political action committee headed by Stefan Passantino, the former deputy White House Counsel under President Donald Trump.
Most important, Boles runs several organizations with Rick Thompson, a member of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (an agency formerly known as the Georgia Ethics Commission). He is also employed by Thompson at Thompson’s political management firm, RTA Strategy. Neither Boles nor Thompson responded to an email submitted by Policy Watch through the website.
Among the catchphrases on the RTA Strategy’s website: “You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”
About two weeks before the fishing trip, Fortune had called the North Carolina nonprofit organization’s election protection hotline. The staff person fielding calls forwarded Fortune to the employee, who would later take him on the fishing trip. Fortune said he had about $20,000 to donate to various groups and wanted to know about partner organizations, the employee told Policy Watch.
Even though Fortune lived 600 miles away, he said he was fond of North Carolina, and allegedly owned a business, Equality Gym, and that he planned to return to the state and open a location here — even though all such facilities were closed by executive order because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Equality Gym set up its Twitter account in June, around the same time that Blue Sky Med Labs incorporated.
Equality Gym has 35 Twitter followers and follows 1,062 accounts, including several North Carolina journalists, politicians and progressive groups. There are no original posts, and the account generally retweets sports and political news. Similarly, Equality Gym’s Instagram account has just one post. The website offers no contact information other than an email address, and is vague about its services.
Blue Sky Med Labs does not have a website, nor a social media presence.
The employee told Policy Watch that meetings and calls with donors and potential donors are common. “I say ‘yes’ to all kinds of things,” the employee said. “This was one call.”
The employee connected Fortune with other nonpartisan voter-education groups. Those included the North Carolina Black Alliance, which spoke to Fortune on a Zoom call. The employee told Policy Watch he was on that call, and that when Black Alliance members asked Fortune questions about the purpose of his donation, “he fumbled with his answers.”
NC Black Alliance declined Fortune’s offer, the employee said, and told him to get back to them when he had a firmer idea of his donation goals.
In July, Fortune flew from New York City to Raleigh and met the employee at My Way Tavern in Raleigh’s Glenwood South neighborhood because Fortune said he was staying in a nearby Airbnb. Throughout the conversation Fortune asked the employee about “strategies for targeting voters, as if he were naive.” The employee said he told Fortune the nonprofit used publicly available data.
Fortune also asked the employee about contacts at the campaign of Cal Cunningham, who is running for the US Senate against Republican incumbent Thom Tillis. The employee said he told Fortune he did not have contacts at the Cunningham campaign.
At the end of the meeting, the employee took a call from a family member about a planned fishing trip to the coast. After the call, Fortune told the employee that he enjoyed deep-sea fishing. So they agreed to meet on an upcoming Sunday.
The employee said that at the time, he was unconcerned about his safety on the boat trip. Now, he said, he is worried about his security. He wonders what Fortune’s plan was had he not become seasick.
In early August, Fortune contacted Common Cause of North Carolina. Bob Phillips told Policy Watch that he had five conversations with Fortune, four of them on Zoom. Fortune told Phillips a similar story to the one he told other election education organizations: that he was moving back to North Carolina to open a gym.
Fortune donated $1,000 to Common Cause, and again the wire transfer came from Blue Sky Med Labs.
Phillips said Fortune also asked him, “If we gave you $10,000 what would you do with it?”
“I was getting a little suspicious,” Phillips said. “It didn’t feel quite right not me.”
The last time Phillips communicated with Fortune was about a month ago, Phillips said. In an email, Fortune introduced Phillips to a woman who said she was living in Cumberland County, Selena Rodriguez. She said she had moved to North Carolina from New York and wanted to volunteer with Common Cause. She knew Fortune, she said, because he had been her personal trainer.
Phillips declined her offer.
Meanwhile, Fortaleza, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that specializes in leadership development work with Wake County’s Latino population that had also interacted with Fortune, became suspicious. It connected Blue Sky Med Labs, which allegedly was in business with Fortune, to Jason Boles.
A Policy Watch analysis of Georgia Secretary of State records show Boles is involved with a vast and sometimes confusing network of political campaigns, conservative advocacy organizations, far-right front groups:
- Boles is the registered agent for Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter who is running for Georgia’s 14th District Congressional seat. In addition to her support of QAnon’s unfounded and outlandish conspiracy theories, Greene has a history of racist comments. According to Politico, she said Black people “are held slaves to the Democratic Party,” called the elections of Representatives Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota an “Islamic invasion” and called billionaire George Soros a “Nazi.” Boles is also the registered agent for the political action committee, Save America Stop Socialism, which is run by Perry Greene, the husband of Marjorie.
- The other registered agent for Greene’s campaign, according to state records, is Stefan Passantino, former Deputy White House Counsel for ethics policy in the Trump administration. He is now part of a new pro-Trump coalition preparing for the possibility of a contested election, according to the Washington Post. Passantino also provided legal advice to the U.S. Postal Service this spring. A bio on his law firm’s website says that in the 2015-2016 election cycle, Passantino “helped form, and served as counsel to, some of the largest and most influential and innovative “SuperPACs” and 501(c)(4) advocacy groups in the presidential campaign, including the Trump Presidential Transition Team.
- Boles is a co-officer and/or registered agent of at least 16 organizations with Rick Thompson, one of Georgia’s state ethics board members. Among those are the Access to Credit Coalition, which appears to advocate for payday lending and other predatory lending practices; several Republican political campaigns for state office; and two for-profit companies that specialize in election software.
- Boles also is the registered agent for what appear to be environmental groups, including Citizens for Clean Water. However, none of these organizations has a website, so it’s difficult to ascertain their true purpose.
- He is also a co-founder of a ministry, Audacious Faith. Its purpose, according to Boles’s LinkedIn Page “is to create and facilitate environments, events and activities that align with Biblical directives and meet the specific needs of our community.”
Phillips told Policy Watch that it’s a vulnerable time for voter education groups, especially because of existing concerns about election security, absentee ballots and the possibility of a protracted vote count.
“It’s a shameful attempt by extremists to cast doubt on election integrity,” Phillips said. “We want to expose them and let the world know it’s happening.”
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