Who wouldn’t want to win tickets to an upcoming Saints game — even if the price of entering was providing your cell phone number to a political campaign? It must have seemed a great idea in the offices of Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, whose campaign website (www.caoforcongress.com) offered supporters the chance to do just that by texting the word “TIX” and/or giving up their cell numbers.
The problem? Nothing on the site indicated that providing a phone number was “opting in” to receiving text messages from the Cao campaign — and, unlike most sweepstakes, there were no rules or odds posted, no number of stated tickets to be given away, nor even the dates of the contest or the prize: just the vague promise of a “chance to win tickets to upcoming games.” Even stickier: the prize had already been given away, according to Cao's campaign manager.
When Gambit called the Cao game on Sept. 21 for clarification, it turned out the prize were for the team’s season opener — which was Sept. 9. The tickets had already been awarded (the winner: Desmon Benn of Algiers), though the campaign was still collecting phone numbers with the promise of giving away more tickets.
“We just did it for the Saints-Vikings home opener. We don’t have any more scheduled, but we’re hoping to do more,” said Cao campaign manager David Huguenel. “This just happened, and we are in the process of changing our website.”
Huguenel conceded the problem with holding a contest in which the prize had already been awarded two weeks before, but said, “We were certainly not trying to deceive anybody; we’re not trying to confuse people. I’m confident we did everything within the rules of FEC (Federal Elections Commission) compliance.”
Cade Cypriano, the campaign’s director of new media, said there would be another ticket giveaway at some point, but “we don’t have the name of the game yet.” Cypriano said the first giveaway had harvested some 800 phone numbers from supporters, and that the campaign was hoping to give away tickets for the Saints-Steelers matchup on Oct. 31.
A contest with no existing prize or stated rules? Julia Queen, a public affairs specialist for the FEC in Washington, D.C., said the commission had no hard and fast rules for giveaways of this sort in exchange for cell phone numbers. “Believe it or not, the FEC rules on the Internet haven’t been updated since 2006,” Queen said, referring Gambit to the U.S. House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
By this afternoon, the Cao campaign website had been changed; the tickets were clearly stated to be for the Steelers game, and some boilerplate rules had been added:
Limited to one entry per mobile number. Winners will be notified within 24 hours of promoted event. Promotional entries and any subsequent information provided are to be used by Joseph Cao for Congress in compliance with FEC regulations, and will not be further distributed at any time during the 2010 congressional campaign. Entry should not be viewed as campaign contribution, and is not deductible as charitable contribution. If you are are under the age of 18 please consult with a parent or legal guardian before entering.
Cypriano also forwarded Gambit a document titled "Internal Memorandum • Mobile Campaign • 8/1/2010," which stated, in part, "Joseph Cao has experienced success in tailoring SMS technology to his congressional race, and once re-elected, looks forward to exploring the utilization of text messaging to increase transparency and accountability within congressional representation."