Just when you think you’ve seen all the bizarre, disheartening, and outright crooked twists that can be thrown into a single election season, this happens.
POLITICO is reporting on an apparent online “catfishing” scheme that targeted anti-Trump figures, Rick Wilson, Cheri Jacobus, and Liz Mair.
The apparent con man at the center of the story is Steve Wessel. Along his checkered path to prison this past Spring, he managed to cheat unsuspecting Manhattan residents out of around $750,000.
In his latest, a move that resulted in his bail being revoked and a judge sending him straight to jail in April of this year, he apparently targeted Wilson, Jacobus, and Mair, posing as several different people online, including a woman living in England by the name of Meagan Lancaster, who reached out to Jacobus and began worming her way into her confidence.
Wilson, Jacobus, and Mair are now questioning if Wessel worked alone in his elaborate efforts to get into their graces, as he doggedly fished for information on their anti-Trump moves.
Wilson, one of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics and the head of a super PAC that opposed the New York billionaire during the primaries, said that only a political professional would think to pump him for the information Wessel sought about his PAC. “The questions were of such a degree of granularity and specificity and political acumen that unless [Wessel] had political experience it would be hard for him to come up with them,” he said.
Meanwhile, the operatives claim that Trump backers were behind the scam, which sought no money, only information about the operatives’ plans for targeting the billionaire presidential candidate. Wessel’s motives remain murky, and the identities of his accomplices, if any, remain unknown. Targets of the scheme have floated a number of figures whom they suspect of participating. Citing emails traced to servers in Colorado and the use of a Colorado phone number in the scheme, Wilson suggested the possible involvement of Make America Great Again PAC, a now defunct pro-Trump super PAC that shut its doors after reports surfaced of possible improper coordination with the campaign.
To make matters surrounding this case more curious (if that’s possible), when POLITICO contacted those involved with the story and told them they’d be publishing a piece in regards to the case, Jacobus reported that her personal email account had been hacked and that thousands of emails were missing, only, not emails she’d sent, but emails that had been sent to her.
The hack has been reported to the FBI’s Cyber Division.
The scheme began last year on October 18, the day The Washington Post published an article about ties between Make America Great Again, the super PAC run by Ciletti, and the Trump campaign. The Post reported that the campaign was using WizBang Solutions, a printing firm that lists Ciletti as a director, as a vendor, an arrangement that would only be legal if WizBang had instituted a firewall to prevent coordination between the PAC and the campaign. Lewandowski, who was campaign manager at the time, initially told the Post that he did not know Ciletti — a longtime associate of his — before conceding that the two knew each other. At the time, the campaign was denying that it had blessed any super PACs, and Lewandowski threatened to sue the Post over the story.
In response to the Post article, Jacobus took to Twitter, where she revealed that Lewandowski had told her about plans for a pro-Trump super PAC during preliminary job discussions she had with Trump’s campaign. Soon after she posted the tweets, Wessel apparently contacted Jacobus through a Twitter account with the handle @JustBeingMeagan, which purported to belong to an American expatriate lawyer living in England named “Meagan Lancaster.”
“Lancaster” plied Jacobus with offers of possible job contacts with Carly Fiorina’s campaign, joined in Trump bashing online, and stories of wealthy contacts, such as British billionaires, David and Simon Reuben.
Jacobus, as well as a lawyer who later became involved in the case, both received $250 gift certificates to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which were proven to be valid, raising the question of how Wessel, who was broke and awaiting prison at the time, was able to afford such gifts, if not for someone backing his scam.
As months of back-and-forth went on, talk of work with the Fiorina campaign faded and new fake personas entered into the scheme. There was a phone call and emails from someone calling himself “Allen Wayne,” an Aspen-based adviser to her donors who died suddenly and was replaced by the persona of Annapolis-based adviser “Will Elliot,” who had worked previously in Wichita.
In December, Lancaster said her clients were looking to plow millions of dollars into anti-Trump efforts, and Jacobus offered to put her in touch with Rick Wilson and Liz Mair, who were running an anti-Trump super PAC called Make America Awesome. But Jacobus was also growing suspicious, and she warned the operatives to handle Lancaster with care.
“Lancaster” wanted information on what the anti-Trump PAC had planned for Trump, claiming to need it to relay to her clients.
Jacobus, Mair, and Wilson all walked away from the apparent scam, with Wilson making the very astute observation: Con artists want money, but this one wanted information. Why, and for whom?
When Jacobus later accused Trump and his then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski of defamation (as they were claiming she begged Trump for a job, which she denies), it was “Lancaster” who put Jacobus in contact with a New York attorney named Bruce Barkett.
On Feb 3, Barket and Jacobus grew increasingly suspicious and demanded that Lancaster contact them through a work email address. When Lancaster emailed them from “SullivanLancasterLLP.com,” a private investigator working for Barket discovered that the domain has been registered earlier that same day.
Barket and Jacobus also compared notes and found that “Will Elliott” was using the same Colorado phone number as the deceased “Allen Wayne.” Barket’s investigator traced some of the emails used in the scheme to servers in Colorado, including one in Englewood, the home of New West Public Affairs, a firm that lists Ciletti as a partner. That connection bolstered suspicions that Make America Great Again PAC was involved in the scheme, although it is easy for hackers to mask the origins of their emails using basic online tools. Ciletti responded that he “can guarantee 100 percent” that the IP addresses for the servers that the emails passed through do not belong to him or anyone he knows.
In February, it was discovered that the SullivanLancaster LLP.com registration was registered to an alias that had previously been used by Steve Wessel, “Wes Wessels.” Also listed as a Washington, D.C. telephone number and an address from New York’s Upper West Side, and a woman named Peg Butler.
When Jacobus went to the address of Peg Butler to let her know her address was being used as part of an online scam, Butler’s husband informed her that his wife did registration work. After that, the mysterious Meagan Lancaster’s Twitter account disappeared.
On top of that, Jacobus later learned that the man she met at Peg Butler’s residence was Steve Wessel, himself (Butler was his wife). He was out on bail and waiting for his incarceration date.
Jacobus brought information about the scheme to the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York who had just convicted Wessel of fraud. As a condition of Wessel’s bail, he was forbidden from using the Internet, and in April, a judge revoked his bail for violating that condition, sending him directly to prison to begin serving his sentence, according to a transcript of the bail hearing.
Days later, and represented by a new lawyer, Jacobus sued Trump and Lewandowski for defamation, litigation that is still ongoing.
The scam was elaborate and directed. Did Wessel act alone? It’s hard to say, but given the dirty nature of this election season and the players involved, I wouldn’t bet on it.