- Special Projects
STEHEKIN, Wash. — Deep in the Washington state wilderness, a highly paid political consultant is raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s presidential campaign.
It’s the kind of money usually spent on national name-brand political operatives with bustling offices and large staffs based in Washington, D.C., or New York.
But few people in the business have ever heard of Kris Robinson, the owner of Northwest Digital, a web design and internet marketing firm working for Gabbard’s campaign. His company address is a P.O. box here in Stehekin, a remote village in the Northern Cascades mountains that’s famous for its isolation.
Cell phone service is non-existent and there are no roads in. Visitors travel mostly via ferry, which each day makes a run up Lake Chelan, a 55-mile journey that can take up to four hours. Other options include horse, foot and floatplane.
As one summer hand at the local lodge said, “It’s kind of like ‘The Shining’ here in the winter. Lots of snow. Not many people.”
Yet in the first six months of 2019, federal campaign finance records show Gabbard paid Robinson and his company more than $259,000.
A second-tier candidate in a shrinking but still large field of Democrats seeking to oust Republican President Donald Trump, Gabbard did not qualify for the September debates.
Robinson is one of her top vendors. The only companies receiving more money in the first half of 2019 were Google, for internet advertising, and Revolution Messaging, a well-known digital firm in Washington, D.C., that ran U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Revolution Messaging and Gabbard parted ways shortly after she announced her candidacy. It was part of a larger shake-up that also saw her then-campaign manager walk away.
While turnover and dysfunction have been hallmarks of Gabbard’s congressional career and, now, her presidential campaign, Robinson has been a near constant in her political orbit.
Like her, he has ties to an obscure religious sect called the Science of Identity Foundation that’s based in Kailua and run by a reclusive guru whose devotees have displayed political ambitions.
Hawaii campaign spending records show Gabbard first hired one of Robinson’s companies, Honu Creative, in 2010 when she was running for the Honolulu City Council. She paid him $75 dollars that year for web hosting and domain purchase.
But Federal Election Commission records show that between 2013 and 2019 Gabbard’s congressional and presidential campaigns have paid out more than $531,000 to Robinson, Honu Creative and Northwest Digital.
He and his companies have never worked for another politician, records show.
That lack of a political resume makes Robinson stick out, particularly among other top dollar pollsters, vendors and consultants working in high stakes presidential politics.
Tim Lim is a former partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive, and is a leading digital strategist who has worked on numerous presidential, Senate and House races over the past decade, including Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.
Lim is also the founder of Blue Digital Exchange, a trade association for people working in the political digital marketplace. Lim says he has no idea who Robinson is.
“I keep pretty close tabs on all the 2020 campaigns,” Lim said. “If you’re a serious enough agency to be working on a presidential campaign, you would have worked on previous statewide campaigns or national super PACs. The fact that I’ve never heard of this guy or his company is peculiar.”
Gabbard and her campaign staff have refused to talk about Robinson and what specifically he has done to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially how effective he can really be on a presidential campaign while living and working in a remote Pacific Northwest village.
Robinson also refused to talk to Civil Beat, even after Civil Beat travelled to Stehekin in an attempt to reach him at his home, which is the same cabin he uses to run Northwest Digital using a small satellite dish in the backyard.
Civil Beat used FEC data, property records, business licenses, websites — some of which have been deleted and partially scrubbed from the internet — and social media accounts to try to figure out who Robinson is and what he does.
FEC records filed by the Gabbard campaign describe briefly that his work for her involves marketing, internet advertising, website and digital management and polling. The records show he’s also been paid to do social media.
But beyond his work for Gabbard, Robinson, who is Australian, does not appear to have any background in politics or digital advertising.
He once had a website, Oinkfu.com, that he used to sell T-shirts and share his musings on apparel design. He also offered to draw anything for $12 so long as it wasn’t pornographic.
His current website, Northwest Digital, is sparse, giving no clue about what sort of business he is in.
There is no “About Us” page or explanation of what the company does or who owns it. Visitors to the site are greeted with rotating views of evergreen forests and Western mountain landscapes.
While other companies involved in digital marketing and web design list current or former clients, Robinson does not. The only business related link is a “Contact” button that automatically generates an email to email@example.com. There’s nothing written in the subject line.
FEC records filed by Gabbard over the years show he listed his business address as Kailua in 2010, Silverton, Oregon in 2016 and Stehekin in 2019. But Robinson has lived in Stehekin, at least part of the time, since 2010 according to what he told the Associated Press in 2010.
The story was about how the residents of Stehekin were divided over whether basic phone service should come to the valley.
The cost was $13,000 a line — paid for by the federal government — and Robinson told the reporter he and his wife, Yamuna, were pro-phone in case of an emergency. They had decided to move to the village, the story said, after Yamuna Robinson’s father had died.
“I could see if you had been here for years and knew how things worked in this community, you might not need a phone,” Kris Robinson told the AP. “What does happen if my kid falls in the lake or breaks her leg and I need to call for help? I just felt I needed that.”
Last month, two trucks — one with Hawaii license plates — blocked the entrance to Robinson’s property. A dented stop sign greeted anyone headed toward the front door, a satellite dish pointed toward the south. A surfboard and tin “Aloha” sign decorated the porch.
Civil Beat knocked on Robinson’s door but no one answered. The next day two children sitting on the porch steps ran inside and slammed the door when asked if Robinson was home. No one else came out.
Property records show the cabin is owned by Stewfam LLC. Robinson’s wife, Yamuna Robinson is the registered agent for the company and she and her siblings, Narayana and Gopal Stewart are the principle governors.
The house was transferred to the siblings in 2009 by a trust in the name of their late father Mark Stewart, whose wife, Janet, still lives in Stehekin.
The Robinsons and the Stewarts all have ties to the Kailua-based Science of Identity Foundation, a controversial religious sect that was founded by Chris Butler, someone Gabbard has described as her “guru dev,” or spiritual master.
Their names have appeared on a number of online forums tracking the organization. Former members interviewed by Civil Beat also confirmed the Robinsons’ and Stewarts’ affiliations with Butler and his religion.
The Science of Identity Foundation is an offshoot of Hare Krishna that was started in Hawaii by the surf-obsessed Butler in the 1970s, and has since spread to other parts of the U.S. as well as countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines.
Butler and his followers had clear political aspirations in Hawaii, launching their own party called the Independents for Godly Government that in 1976 fielded a slate of more than a dozen candidates for federal, state and local office.
Much has been written about Gabbard’s upbringing in the religious sect and speculation continues about how much Butler and the organization are influencing or involved in her presidential campaign.
Gabbard’s parents, Mike Gabbard, a Hawaii state senator, and his wife, Carol, a former school board member, were both Butler devotees. The congresswoman even spent a couple childhood years at a school in the Philippines that was run by Butler’s followers.
Kris Robinson also attended one of these schools, according to Ian Koviak, a Portland, Oregon, resident whose mother was a devotee of Butler and his religion.
Koviak says he was a classmate of Robinson’s at the Science of Identity Foundation’s all-boys school in the Philippines, where his mother sent him while she went on a mission to Poland.
Like others who have distanced themselves from Butler and his religion — which they call “a cult” — Koviak has been outspoken about his experiences within the Science of Identity Foundation and at the school, participating in online forums at the Cult Education Institute website and posting to social media.
Robinson isn’t the only person with ties to the Science of Identity Foundation who has been affiliated with Gabbard in recent years, since she’s been in Congress or even during her run for president.
The congresswoman surrounds herself with people who are linked to Butler and his followers, from her chief of staff, Kainoa Penaroza, to some of her closest campaign advisors.
Among those on the 2020 campaign trail with Gabbard are her sister, Vrindavan Bellord, and the congresswoman’s husband, Abraham Williams, who spends much of his time taking pictures and shooting video of Gabbard’s public appearances.
Bellord, although a near constant presence, is not being paid by the campaign, according to FEC records.
But Gabbard’s federal campaign committees have paid Williams thousands of dollars in recent years for media production, travel expenses and equipment rentals.
Her committees have also hired Blue River Productions, a company Williams worked for that’s run by Science of Identity affiliates, to do media work for her presidential run. In 2019 alone the company has been paid nearly $76,000.
Sunil Khemaney, another Butler associate involved in a number of businesses and nonprofits with ties to the guru, has travelled with Gabbard as she has campaigned around the country this year.
He was with her in Iowa shortly after she announced her candidacy. A New York Magazine reporter who joined the Gabbard contingent for a short time wrote that the “quiet, mustachioed” Khemaney handed her a Tulsi 2020 business card that included his name, but was blank where the job title should have been.
Khemaney has helped organize Gabbard’s trips to India that have bolstered her popularity in that country and with Indian Americans in the U.S. Gabbard is the first Hindu in Congress, but is not of Indian descent.
Robinson would not talk to Civil Beat for this story despite repeated requests for an interview, including the attempts to reach him at home as well as through phone messages and email requests.
His only response was a brief email from his “Tulsi 2020” account shortly after a Civil Beat reporter arrived in Stehekin. He directed questions to Gabbard’s longtime spokeswoman, Erika Tsuji, who is based in Hawaii.
“I’m sorry, I have a confidentiality clause with all of my clients,” Robinson wrote. “I cannot and will not be answering any of your questions.”
Civil Beat reached out to Tsuji and other members of Gabbard’s campaign staff to request an interview with the congresswoman or one of her representatives to explain Robinson’s role in their political operation.
Civil Beat also asked the campaign to address Robinson’s ties to the Science of Identity Foundation as well as whether it would waive his confidentiality agreement so that he could talk about his work.
In an email to Civil Beat, Tsuji did not provide any details about Robinson’s work. She noted that Gabbard’s campaigns were in compliance with FEC rules, although she did not explain what that meant.
“As has been true for all of Tulsi’s campaign, Tulsi 2020 has complied in full with all Federal Election Commission rules and reporting requirements,” Tsuji said.
“You can find detailed information about payments to any of our vendors on the FEC website.”
Tsuji similarly refused to comment on Robinson’s apparent connections to Butler and the Science of Identity Foundation, and instead provided a vague statement on Gabbard’s support of religious freedom.
“As a member of Congress and the U.S. Armed Forces, Tulsi has served to protect every American citizen’s right to be treated fairly and to practice their religious convictions,” Tsuji said. “She and her staff consider it unethical, improper, and immoral to compromise those rights that so many have sacrificed to defend.”
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