Updated on August 30 at 10:48 a.m.
On paper, Randy Treibel looks like a one-of-a-kind campaign donor—a wealthy executive who has supported both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders with near equal and enthusiastic fervor.
The entrepreneur and one-time professional poker player has, according to FEC filings, contributed just shy of $25,000 in total to the two candidates, more than any other person in America has given to both the Trump and Sanders campaigns combined. But Treibel isn’t donating all this money out of devotion to these unlikely political insurgents.
He’s just trying to make a profit.
Treibel has been buying Trump and Sanders campaign merchandise in bulk—stickers, buttons, and the like—and reselling it through his retail company on Amazon.com at a considerable markup. A Trump sign that costs $10 on his campaign website, for example, will sell for $35 on Amazon, he told me in a phone interview.
“People will buy it,” Treibel said. “Amazon customers generally are affluent and irrational and they just want it quick.”
Treibel made the purchases himself as CEO of a Redmond, Washington-based company called Twenty One Twelve, which engages in what Treibel called “retail-to-retail arbitrage”—buying goods and then re-selling them at higher prices. By using authentic merchandise from the campaigns, he’s aiming for a higher-end consumer than the abundant vendors who sell bootleg campaign items online and in the streets.
“Our market is to appeal to a very irrational customer,” he said. “Respectfully, you kind of get that out of the far left and the far right. So that stuff sold really well.”
And it’s all completely legal under campaign rules.
“There is nothing under federal campaign-finance law and agency regulations that speaks to the issue of a contributor selling campaign merchandise received as a result of making a contribution to a federal candidate's campaign committee,” an FEC spokesman, Christian Helland, said. “Where contributions are concerned, the Commission is responsible for ensuring that individuals and political committees comply with contribution limitations and source prohibitions of federal campaign-finance law.”
The campaign-finance system obviously isn’t intended to facilitate get-rich schemes for donors (at least, not directly). But Treibel is taking advantage—unwittingly, he says—of the lax enforcement of contribution limits to federal campaigns. Buying campaign merchandise counts as a donation, and donations to presidential candidates are capped at $2,700 for the primary and an additional $2,700 for the general election. In the era of online fund-raising where campaigns ask their supporters for repeat contributions, donors unaware of these limits frequently blow right by them. That has been true to an unprecedented extent for the Sanders campaign, which has collected excess contributions from more than 1,500 donors.
The FEC only requires that campaigns refund excess contributions after they are given; it doesn’t force them to reject them in the first place. This loophole allows Treibel to make an even bigger killing than he imagined. Although he shelled out nearly $25,000 for the merchandise initially, he will get all but $8,100 back in refunds from the campaigns. (Though both the Trump and Sanders campaigns have reported issuing thousands of dollars in refunds to Treibel, he said he initially only received a partial one from Trump and nothing from Sanders. After the publication of this article, Treibel said he received his refund from the Sanders campaign.)
Treibel said he didn’t even know that buying the goods counted as a donation and acknowledged that with the refunds, “essentially we’d be getting free stuff, which is a little bit awkward.”
“That was not the intent,” he told me. “The intent was simply to profit in a purely ethical and legal manner. But what it turns out is, if they comply with FEC law, I may get 90, 95 percent of my investment back on top of what I profited.”
“That sounds dirty, but that wasn’t the intent,” Treibel added. “It’s like bank error in your favor almost, if that makes sense.”
For their part, the campaigns appear too busy trying to keep up with their donations and refunds to demand that he return any merchandise. Neither would comment on Treibel’s profiteering. The Trump campaign, however, eventually caught on to what Treibel was doing. He said he received a call on Thursday from a marketing representative for the campaign who, while thanking him for his support, informed him that merchandise would now be sold only by a super PAC supporting Trump. Unlike the campaigns themselves, super PACs can accept unlimited donations, so it would not have to send Treibel any refunds for the merchandise he purchases.
Experts in campaign-finance law said they had never heard of a donor raking in big bucks by buying and re-selling campaign swag. “What an enterprising gentleman,” mused Lisa Gilbert, the director of the Congress Watch program at the non-profit organization Public Citizen. She faulted the campaigns for not doing a better job of tracking donations and making sure that contributors didn’t give too much in the first place. “This is a loophole,” she said. “It seems like something should be done to try to rein it in.”
While the Sanders campaign had nothing to say about Treibel, it has acknowledged having difficulty ensuring that its more than 2.7 million donors stay under the $2,700 individual limit for primary contributions and noted that Barack Obama’s campaign faced a similar challenge managing its legions of supporters in 2008.
But Larry Noble, a former general counsel for the FEC who now has a similar role at the Campaign Legal Center, said the Sanders and Trump campaigns should have cut Treibel off once he hit the limit. “At the point they realized this person maxed out, they should have stopped accepting any contributions from them,” Noble said. “So at the very least, it’s sloppiness. But you question whether they had any safeguards to make sure people weren’t making excessive contributions.”
As for Treibel, he surmised that a future campaign could exploit the system in a different way: by buying up an opponent’s campaign merchandise at such a scale that it drains their coffers when they are forced to issue refunds in accordance with FEC rules. Ever the businessman, he set about trying to collect the refunds that he hadn’t yet received from the Sanders campaign. The Trump merchandise is still selling well, he said, but because Sanders is no longer in the race, sales of his merchandise have slowed and he is relying on the refunds to make a profit on those items.
Treibel said his motive was purely profit, not politics, although he did acknowledge that he sold Sanders merchandise for lower prices as a small act of favoritism. But why didn’t he bother to buy up Hillary Clinton stickers and signs?
“That stuff just doesn’t sell,” he said. “Nobody buys it.”