It’s a journalistic undertaking that has long been a staple of good reporting — well before it was popularized in the 1976 movie, “All The President’s Men,” that dramatized the Watergate break-in and corruption of the Nixon administration.
We take our duty to watchdog the public trust seriously. That often means checking up on whether public money is being spent appropriately. In the case of political candidates, we look closely at money that people have entrusted to candidates with the expectation it will be spent responsibly.
Perhaps more importantly, Gabbard is running for President of the United States. Voters should know everything about her, including how she makes decisions and who she chooses to surround herself with.
So when Nick Grube reviewed campaign finance records for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s presidential campaign and noticed that she’d paid an awful lot of money to a little-known internet marketing firm, his journalist’s antenna went up.
Digging further into Gabbard’s reports, he found that over the past few years she’s spent more than $500,000 with Kris Robinson and his company, Northwest Digital — a consultant that none of the political professionals Nick talked to had ever heard of. In fact, just since January, Gabbard has paid Robinson $259,000.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, pictured here in New Hampshire in late 2018, has been traversing the country asking people to support her presidential campaign.
Nick Grube/Civil Beat
That alone made Robinson one of the highest paid contractors on any presidential campaign this year — in the top 2%. Yet Robinson doesn’t appear to have any background in politics, and has never worked for another candidate besides Gabbard.
That would raise anybody’s eyebrows. And since the story was published last week it’s been circulated widely in national political circles because they too don’t quite get what’s going on here.
Initially we wanted to know what Robinson had done for a quarter-million dollars this year. Federal Election Commission records say website management, internet advertising, communications, marketing and polling. But what is that, more specifically?
This screenshot shows the homepage of Kris Robinson’s Northwest Digital political consulting website.
Gabbard won’t talk about this stuff. In fact, for the past few years she has consistently refused to have any meaningful conversations with Hawaii reporters, not just Civil Beat and not just about this but really about any of her actions and her views on any issue.
She much prefers to deliver her message through social media postings and direct email where there is no questioning what she has to say. Her oft-repeated assertion that the press is out to get her is just another diversionary tactic so she doesn’t have to answer even the most legitimate questions. We expect more of our elected officials and voters should, too.
But Gabbard’s way of doing the public’s business extends to her staff and consultants, too.
So when Robinson didn’t respond to Nick’s numerous calls and emails, he decided he’d just go look him up at his office. That address turned out to be in the remote village of Stehekin, Washington, population 85.
Curiouser and curiouser.
So we sent Nick to Stehekin to see if he could find Robinson and determine whether it was even possible to do hundreds of thousands of dollars of internet work from a place that is not accessible by road and has little or no cell phone service, let alone reliable internet access.
It took Nick two days to get there from Washington, D.C., where he is based. He took a plane to Spokane, rented a car and drove to Lake Chelan where he caught a ferry. It took another few hours to get to the village.
A view of Lake Chelan from Stehekin Valley Road, the main thoroughfare in this tiny mountain village.
And he determined that the cabin in the woods where Robinson has lived since at least 2010 is owned by Robinson’s wife’s family, also members of the Science of Identity Foundation led by Butler.
As Nick pointed out in the story, Robinson isn’t the only person working on Gabbard’s campaign or on her congressional staff who has ties to the Hare Krishna organization. Their qualifications have raised concern in the past.
So what Kris Robinson is doing to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars of supporters’ money is a legitimate question and one that we felt we needed to go to some lengths to try to answer on behalf of Hawaii residents and voters, since Gabbard won’t answer herself.
“This is a traditional, shoe-leather, follow-the-money piece,” Nick says.
We did get a two-paragraph email from Gabbard’s campaign that said she was following campaign law and that people have a right to worship however they want. Of course, that wasn’t what we asked her. But then she knew that.
This was never a story about religion. It’s always been about following the money. We believe she owes it to the people who trusted her to explain where it’s gone.
Editor’s Note:Readers often wonder about the reporting and editing process and other news practices. We think it’s important to explain our decisions and do so from time to time in our ongoing series called “Behind The Story.” For even more information about how Civil Beat and other news outlets do their journalism, check out our “Understanding The News” section.
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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.