There's no better way to travel to Davos than on somebody else's Gulfstream. And that's how the Democratic operatives involved in Invest Again thought they were going to fly: They were going to go to Switzerland on a private plane owned by the heirs of the Goodrich tire fortune. They were going to meet with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and with Richard Branson, the Virgin Atlantic founder, who had supposedly pledged $12 million in seed money for their new organization.
Invest Again: It was a progressive organizer's dream. People quit good jobs to join the staff. Major Democratic strategy firms — Bully Pulpit, a digital media shop founded by Obama campaign alumni; NGP VAN, which supplied software for President Obama's 2012 campaign; Fitzgibbon Media, whose client roster includes MoveOn.org, NARAL, and Julian Assange — signed on to create an issue campaign promoting science and science research, some with contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. Bruce Kieloch, the Democratic fundraiser, and Kimball Stroud, the D.C. event guru, both deeply tapped into the world of high-net-worth Washington Democrats, had joined up as consultants.
There was a proposed budget of $30 million over the first 18 months, according to a draft of a campaign plan, with $4 million for staff alone.
And it was largely the brainchild of a 25-year-old wunderkind named Rory McCarron. Over the course of a few months, McCarron had turned a cocktail-napkin idea into a serious multimillion-dollar operation. It was impressive, and he was impressive: whip-smart and knowledgeable enough to make people want to join his cause, and likable and earnest enough to make people want to offer him a place to crash.
He was said to refer to her as "Mama H."
Not that he should have needed one, say some of those who worked with him, because he often mentioned his wealth and connections. They say McCarron told them that he had a trust fund of $60 million, and recall him talking at length about his close ties to Hillary Clinton: that he was a key member of her campaign and her team at the State Department; that they spoke almost weekly. He was said to refer to her as "Mama H."
"Ninety percent of his conversation was about Hillary Clinton and how close they were," says Erica Payne, a progressive activist and the president of the Agenda Project, who says she met McCarron on three separate occasions. "Actually, about 60 percent was about how close they were and the other 40 percent was about how much money he had."
But now, just a few months after the launch of Invest Again, several involved parties are coming forward claiming to be victims of deceit by the young man they once believed to be a star in the organizing world. They say they're not sure what to believe now, other than that the organization's resources and connections seem to be largely fabricated. McCarron, for his part, is fighting back vigorously, saying he is the victim of a smear campaign. He pins most of the blame on Kieloch, the fundraiser, and the first in the group to openly raise questions about McCarron's background.
However this ultimately shakes out, it appears that Invest Again, a campaign and organization that flashed onto the Washington landscape with a bang, will be headed toward a similarly hair-trigger extinction. Lawyers are now involved, lawsuits are being threatened. Simply put, it's a mess.
What follows is the kind of story that makes you say, "How could this happen in Washington?" and, at the same time, "Of course this happened in Washington." It is a tale of the capital's fast-paced, who-you-know culture, where connections are currency as good as cash, and relationships, formed at IM speed, are sometimes sealed without so much as a single face to face meeting. Like everything else in 2014, it is a story that moves quickly. A chain of events that could easily have spanned several years took place over the course of just a few months. Much occurred, although it's hard to say what was ultimately accomplished, and, as the fallout begins, many unanswered question remain.
The place to start is at the beginning.
Last summer, a young man named Rory McCarron began working in New York for Caring Across Generations, a union-funded campaign designed to promote improved home health care options for those in need. While there, McCarron befriended Eleiza Braun, the group's communications director, who had previously worked in Geneva, for The Global Fund.
When they weren't hard at work, Braun says, she and McCarron would often spend time talking shop. McCarron had previously worked as a digital director for Democrat Kathleen Falk's gubernatorial campaign in Wisconsin and, to Braun, he seemed savvy and well versed in a world for which, at 31, she felt almost too old.
His online bio said he had gone to Williams College and had served as executive director of a Hillary Clinton-related super PAC called HRC Legacy PAC. Indeed, Braun says, he told her in great detail about his close ties to the former secretary of State.
Over drinks, she says, the two began to hatch an idea for an issue campaign that would promote science and reason. "We thought it would be a really good political bridge issue," Braun says.
"Where did the idea come from? [Over] a lot of drinks consumed, you talk about different ways to run campaigns. That is the thing you do in bars with like-minded people," she says.
Soon, they started talking to others about their idea and, eventually, Braun introduced McCarron to Kieloch, a longtime Democratic and progressive fundraiser who currently consults for House Majority PAC. Braun knew Kieloch also had Clinton ties — namely to Hillary's brother, Tony Rodham.
McCarron and Kieloch first met at a political event in Connecticut and hit it off.
"He was warm and friendly and charismatic; a little quirky — but aren't we all?" says Kieloch.
By July, McCarron had left Caring Across Generations and, as the summer came to a close, he and Braun were shaping their new organization.
The following month, McCarron asked Braun if she might contribute some notes for a speech Clinton would be giving on the use of force in Syria. Braun says she was flattered by the opportunity, and wrote up some talking points, which McCarron said he passed along to Clinton staffers. According to Braun, McCarron specifically claimed to have passed them along to Cheryl Mills, a longtime Clinton associate who served as her chief of staff at the State Department. Braun says McCarron convinced her of this by forwarding her an email exchange between him and Mills. Emails obtained by National Journal include a conversation that appears to be McCarron and Mills discussing Braun's work.
According to Braun, this wasn't the only time McCarron had forwarded her an email conversation in which he appeared to be conversing with a Clintonite. National Journal was also provided copies of two other such email exchanges, in which McCarron appears to be in friendly communication with Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's former Labor secretary, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, who served under Hillary Clinton at State.
"He was warm and friendly and charismatic; a little quirky — but aren't we all?"
The legitimacy of the email exchanges purportedly between McCarron and Clinton's inner circle is now in doubt, but at the time no one had reason to raise questions, and the Invest Again juggernaut continued.
On Nov. 5, the Invest Again campaign launched its website. In a message he posted on his personal blog, titled "Jumping off a cliff," McCarron said he was both "excited" and, as he added in boldface type, "terrified."
He wrote of his apprehensions: "Not that we won't do a good job — of that I have no doubt, but terrified that if this doesn't work, we'll lose that odd, pioneering spirit that has defined America for centuries."
Kieloch invited McCarron and McCarron's boyfriend to his mountain house in Virginia over Thanksgiving, and the two stayed several days thereafter for Kieloch's birthday party. McCarron was introduced to a number of Kieloch's friends, including Nora Maccoby, a filmmaker who cowrote the movie Buffalo Soldiers, and who spent several years working on environmental advocacy issues. She took an immediate liking to McCarron.
"I thought he was smart, and all our friends thought he was smart," she says. "He is gay and fat and kind of innocent. It was this whole teen innocence: He seemed pure in his intentions on science and getting investment in science and taking on the Koch Brothers, and that to me was really admirable and basically what I had been doing."
Maccoby also recalls McCarron talking about Hillary Clinton. "It was like he was on the phone with Hillary all the time," she says.
Indeed, Maccoby took such a liking to McCarron that she invited him and his boyfriend to stay with her and her husband in their house for several weeks.
And so it was that McCarron became baked in Washington's convection oven of credibility. You meet somebody, they introduce you to somebody else, and so on and so forth, until you've secured your future legitimacy among those you will meet, and improved your stock retrospectively among those you've already met. All you have to do is find a way in. And the new, digital Washington, Washington 2.0, is more porous and accessible than ever; no suit or tie required, no proof of degree or driver's license necessary. Glibness is currency enough — and McCarron, say those who worked with him, had that in spades. He could talk the talk, and in multiple Beltway dialects: digital ads, politics, foreign policy, you name it. In describing him, Kieloch invoked a phrase once used to describe the charisma of Steve Jobs, saying he created a "reality distortion field."
And he was able to deliver enough, initially, to convince others he had the goods. Maccoby recalls McCarron arranging a meeting for the two of them with a contact at the Defense Department. Eventually, she says, she agreed to join Invest Again as director of partnerships and outreach, for a salary of $90,000 a year. Kieloch said he was impressed by the Hillary Clinton esoterica McCarron seemed to know — the kinds of things, he says, like the fact that Clinton had a getaway cabin in Lake Winola, Pa., to which one might assume only a true member of the club would be privy.
According to Kieloch and Braun, Bully Pulpit and Fitzgibbon Media were two of the initial vendors to sign contracts. Kieloch said he felt comfortable joining the project in part because these firms were on board. (Representatives with both firms declined to talk on the record for this story.) An online document also appears to show NGP VAN contracting with Invest Again to do more than $27,000 in web-related work. (NGP VAN did not reply to an email requesting comment.) According to copies of emails obtained by National Journal, offer letters went out to several hires.
Washington 2.0, is more porous and accessible than ever; no suit or tie required, no proof of degree or driver's license necessary.
In addition to claiming to be a go-between with the Clintons, say those involved with the group, McCarron also made claims about major funding commitments, including a purported $12 million pledge from Branson, the Virgin Atlantic billionaire. A copy of a Google Hangout conversation from Dec. 5, provided to National Journal, appears to show McCarron describing the terms of the deal: "Branson in for 12."
Two weeks later, McCarron provided to Braun and Kieloch a PDF copy of a letter of intent, apparently signed by Branson, on stationery bearing the Virgin logo.
"I have thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with you and your team over the past month and look forward to the great work we can do together," the letter says.
Over the next month, the team planned for three big powwows surrounding Invest Again's major public unveiling: There was a trip to Hollywood for the Golden Globes, where they would schmooze with talent agents and celebrities and potential donors; a trip to Davos, where McCarron said he had arranged meetings with the Clintons and Branson; and an event at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
Invest Again's big public ad launch was supposed to be pegged to President Obama's 2014 State of the Union address. According to internal emails, Bully Pulpit was handling the digital ad buy.
"It got big quickly," says Braun. "The whole thing required a comfort level with electronic correspondence that allowed it to happen. All the correspondence being over email and the electronic documentation and signatures--it was hard to figure out what is real."
On Jan. 9, an email apparently sent from McCarron to Kieloch and Braun outlined the Davos itinerary. It said he had scheduled time with Branson for "all day" on the 23rd and 24th, and Bill Clinton for all day on the 24th and a two-hour block on the 23rd. Also referenced in the email was a speech McCarron said he was supposed to give in conjunction with receiving a young leadership award at the World Economic Forum, according to Kieloch. Kieloch and Braun also say McCarron told them that he had secured his family's private plane for the transatlantic flight.
But by then, Kieloch says, he was growing uneasy about the whole thing. He says he had begun to ask questions for which McCarron had answers, but ones that didn't fully satisfy his growing sense of apprehension. Then, he says, McCarron announced yet another multimillion-dollar pledge to the campaign — and a big red flag went up. So he decided to go right to the heart of the matter.
On Jan. 10, Kieloch says he contacted Hillary Clinton's brother, Tony Rodham, asking him to check in with his sister about whether she knew a Rory McCarron. A day later, Rodham got back to Kieloch, saying that he had run McCarron's name by Hillary and it didn't ring a bell. In an email to National Journal, Rodham confirmed the information, saying, "Yes I brought up this guy Rory to Hillary from Bruce and she has never heard of him." A Hillary Clinton spokesman did not reply to requests for comment.
Kieloch says he immediately then texted his findings to Maccoby — who had just boarded the a flight to L.A. for the Golden Globes with McCarron, his boyfriend, and some other Invest Again associates.
They weren't going to Davos; they weren't going to be flying on a Gulfstream.
According to Maccoby, McCarron had promised them lodging at the Chateau Marmont, but they all ended up staying at an Airbnb rental in Echo Park, Calif. Maccoby, Kieloch, and Braun say they quietly canceled legitimate meetings in L.A. in light of their new suspicions. Maccoby says after a day or so, she and her husband left the group Airbnb to stay with friends in the area and attempted to make the most out of the trip. McCarron, meanwhile, also seemed to make the most of things. His Foursquare page from the week showed him "checking in" to a Pinkberry in Santa Monica, a David Myers restaurant in West Hollywood, and the Chateau Marmont. He also scored himself an invite to a Golden Globes after party: the InStyle soiree, from which he tweeted a photo of himself tuxedoed and posing with TV actress Lana Parrilla.
Back in Washington, a fuming Kieloch bombarded McCarron with text messages and phone calls, telling him that he had been uncovered as a fraud. In response, McCarron filed for an order of protection in Los Angeles Superior Court, according to the court's website. Braun and Kieloch had concluded by that point that they could no longer count on anything McCarron had told them. They weren't going to Davos; they weren't going to be flying on a Gulfstream. They braced for the fallout and moved to try to find a way to put an end to McCarron's control.
Braun obtained her own lawyers and, according to several sources, Clinton attorney David Kendall was apprised of some of the allegations involving McCarron. Last Thursday, McCarron says, he met with Kendall. Reached by phone, Kendall declined to comment.
The next day, according to an email obtained by National Journal, McCarron tried to explain the Kendall meeting and the larger shake-up surrounding Invest Again to a group of colleagues. He said that problems started when Kieloch "started asking questions about my background and threatened my life" — a charge Kieloch denies. Regarding the Kendall meeting, he said, "the only concern he had was that the campaign was not using Sec. Clinton's name to fundraise." McCarron went on to say that he was working with Brian Svoboda, a Perkins Coie attorney initially hired by Invest Again to help draft its articles of incorporation, who was "researching ways to negate any of the current attacks this campaign is undergoing." (Svoboda told me this week he doesn't currently represent either McCarron or Invest Again.) And he said he had made contact with Invest Again's donor network and been assured that "our funding is secure."
The email ended with an apology "for the events of the last two weeks," but without specifying exactly what the apology was for.
On Friday, I contacted McCarron over email, and he quickly called me. We spoke several times throughout the day and into the evening. He maintained that the entire controversy had been stirred up by Kieloch, who was acting out of jealousy — of his youth, of his success, of his boyfriend.
"I am under direct assault by someone who is twice my age," he said.
He said Braun and others were merely covering for Kieloch, taking the side of the more seasoned Washington player. Having tried to file for a restraining order against Kieloch in Los Angeles, McCarron apparently did the same in Arlington County, Va., on Jan. 27. He sent me iPhone pictures he had snapped of what looked to be preliminary protective orders, which he said were granted based on messages sent by Kieloch.
Despite a myriad of accusations, and apparent documentary evidence to the contrary, McCarron said he has never claimed to have spoken to Hillary Clinton, nor had a friendship with her. He also denied ever claiming to have communicated with Anne-Marie Slaughter or Robert Reich. (Both Slaughter and Reich told me they did not know McCarron.)
What about the emails that seemed to show McCarron communicating with Clinton's people? He said they could have been falsified by the same people who claim he fabricated them.
When I asked about whether he had claimed to have funding commitments from Branson, he initially said he could "neither confirm nor deny."
Despite a myriad of accusations, and apparent documentary evidence to the contrary, McCarron said he has never claimed to have spoken to Hillary Clinton.
What about the $60 million trust fund he allegedly told people about? "I have a trust fund," he said. "The valuation of that is confidential." But he insisted that he had never used allusions to personal wealth in trying to sell Invest Again to vendors, donors, or employees.
When I asked him about attending Williams College (his LinkedIn profile had, until late Friday, said he graduated there in 2008), he told me he attended but ended up a few credits shy. When I told him I checked with the registrar's office, and there was no record of him ever attending the school, he said he and his mother requested that his name be stricken from the records. (The person I followed up with in the registrar's office said she didn't think this could be done.)
And so on it went.
Why did it appear that HRC Legacy PAC had never raised any actual money, but had instead garnered several reprimands from the FEC for having missed filing requirements?
McCarron replied that the PAC was just a device to help hide the names of donors for a 501c(4) he operated, but wouldn't disclose any information about. (501c(4) organizations are not required to disclose the names of donors.) It was all just to "send a reporter on a goose hunt," he said. "Reporters are our enemies."
McCarron made one small concession about misportraying his ties to Clinton. He acknowledged deceiving Braun into thinking that her Syria talking points were going to be passed along to Clinton's people. He said he was just trying to be nice and "give a colleague confidence in her writing."
On our third telephone conversation, he said the $12 million pledge from Branson, and the signed letter of intent, were legitimate.
"The Branson letter is something I got from someone on his team," McCarron said.
But when I forwarded a copy of the letter to Virgin, Christina Choi, Branson's spokeswoman, denied it had come from her boss.
"It was not written by Richard, who has not had contact with [McCarron]," Choi wrote in an email.
The Invest Again website came down this week.
"For myself, one of the absolutely hardest pieces to process is I legitimized him," says Braun. "People trusted him because they trusted me. I was part of causing a nontrivial amount of hurt, whatever way it happened."
Braun says she herself spent $10,000 to help fund the website; many of the consultants have put in significant time for which they now believe they won't be paid. "There are two months of retainers we'll never get," said one contractor.
"I think everybody believed him," said Payne. "But belief in politics is a subjective term. I think the nature of politics is such that you meet an enormous number of people on a weekly basis, and so you have to operate under the assumption that most people you meet with are reasonably credible."
For his part, McCarron says he is the one who has lost money — as much as $45,000 — and that his boyfriend has lost thousands as well. He says he is going over things with his attorneys, and looking into filing a lawsuit against his accusers within the next two weeks.
"In this field," he says, "all you have is your reputation."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article identified Anne-Marie Slaughter as a Princeton professor. She is currently the president and CEO of the New America Foundation.