“The Most Immoral, Unethical Thing I’ve Ever Seen In My 15 Years Of Politics” — Inside A Small City Mayor’s Campaign For President09/06/2019
Democratic presidential candidate, mayor of Miramar, Florida Wayne Messam speaks to the crowd during the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Wayne Messam is best known, if you’ve heard of him at all, as the other mayor running for president — in his case, not quite as successfully as South Bend, Indiana’s mayor, Pete Buttigieg.
The mayor of Miramar, Florida, has not found much of an audience or appeared in any debates. He has raised a mere $93,812 and a small campaign staff. And now, according to internal campaign documents and interviews with eight former Messam campaign staffers and contractors, his campaign appears to be in near-total disarray.
The documents and staffers, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect future employment prospects, depicted a no-hope campaign that nonetheless was embroiled in bitter disputes over money and control — a “D-list version of The Sopranos,” in one description. In particular, staffers claim that Wayne and his wife, Angela Messam, have refused to pay them for their work. All of the staff members and vendors that BuzzFeed News spoke with said they were never fully compensated for their work on the campaign and, in some cases, weren’t paid at all for expenses they’d fronted from their own bank accounts, including business cards for the campaign and flights, hotel rooms, and security costs for a trip to the Middle East. In some instances, staffers were told by the Messams that the couple believed them to be “volunteering” for the campaign, despite emails from senior staff to the Messams telling them about start dates for employees, and what staffers say were verbal agreements and offer letters from the campaign for their positions.
“This is the most immoral, unethical thing I’ve ever seen in my 15 years of politics,” CeCe Grant, the former chief operations director for Messam’s campaign, told BuzzFeed News in an interview.
“We’re all pretty much resigned to the fact that we’ll likely never get paid for the work that we did for them,” a former senior aide told BuzzFeed News, who believes, based on conversations with other staffers who quit, that in total, the team of senior aides is owed more than $75,000 in wages and reimbursements.
Many of the subcontractors say they ended up cutting their losses rather than suing, having assumed that a legal fight would inevitably be more expensive than just quitting while they were ahead.
“It’s almost the perfect crime in that they were too stupid to run this thing the right way and there’s a paper trail of all of the correspondence,” one subcontractor told BuzzFeed News. “But now we’re all just out because I’m not going to spend money to get money back. It’s like we were in some D-list version of The Sopranos.”
The Messam campaign disputed the claims made by former staffers and contractors in an email to BuzzFeed News, saying that all of the allegations “can all be sourced back to the unauthorized actions” by a consulting firm, Dark Horse, LLC, that had done work for the campaign. They allege that employees of Dark Horse “used the campaign’s image and likeness to promote themselves and to paint the false narrative that the campaign was responsible for the alleged disputes.”
Several of Messam’s top advisers hailed from Dark Horse, including multiple staffers who had been integral to Andrew Gillum’s 2018 gubernatorial race. They did not respond to specific questions about the documents and allegations.
The campaign alleges that Dark Horse was a consultant firm up for consideration “at the beginning phase of the campaign” and that the campaign “ultimately did not agree to their contract terms after the launch of the campaign.”
However number of staffers associated with Dark Horse continued to work with the campaign after its launch. One staffer associated with Dark Horse was regularly sending out fundraising emails on behalf of the Messam campaign, and many were touted in the press in mid-April after the launch of the campaign.
The campaign also alleged that “no authorized Wayne Messam for America representative signed any agreements or negotiated compensation for these individuals and subcontractors” and that any documents were signed by “Dark Horse & Associates principals.” The campaign suggested that Dark Horse instructed “unauthorized individual(s)” to execute agreements they say were created on “false campaign letterhead.”
The 45-year-old mayor from Miramar, a small South Florida town near Miami, launched his long-shot presidential campaign in March and has since pitched himself as an alternative to Buttigieg, relying heavily on his mayoral experience (a largely ceremonial position leading the city’s commision meetings and representing the city in government dealings) to point to his experiences with fixing problems on day-to-day basis.
He kicked off his campaign by becoming the first presidential candidate to announce that he wanted to pursue complete forgiveness of student loan debt.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the campaign said Messam was working to “fight for the average Americans to achieve the American Dream. Mayor Messam and his wife Angela are an American success story that have dedicated their lives to service and creating jobs and opportunity.”
Former senior campaign staffers told BuzzFeed News that they’d started speaking with the Messams about the possibility of launching a presidential campaign in November of 2018 and began preparing in earnest for the possibility of launching a campaign in January. They started reaching out to subcontractors to design social media, advertisements, and websites; to set up donor lists; and to create other campaign materials.
“They were fully aware. We extended the agreement for a certain amount, on X date,” one staffer told BuzzFeed News. “Everything sounded like he was on the up-and-up.” One email provided to BuzzFeed News show that both Wayne and Angela Messam were sent official start dates and names of campaign staffers, as well as schedules for staff meet and greets with the Messams. Angela Messam responded to this email affirmatively.
Emails between Angela Messam and subcontractors show her asking the contractors to call her to discuss campaign-related business. In emails she sent months later after being asked for payment, Messam told the same contractors she did not know about their services.
“I have never authorized you to work as a vendor for WFA and do not know about your services,” Angela told one subcontractor in an email, referring to the Wayne for America official campaign, after suggesting that the company bill a former staffer because, she claims, the senior staffer “wasn’t authorized for anything with WFA.”
Subcontractors who helped the campaign prepare for the launch of the exploratory committee on March 13 told BuzzFeed News that their contracts were signed under Dark Horse Associates LLC, a firm that helped launch campaigns like Andrew Gillum’s during the 2018 Florida gubernatorial race and was assisting Messam in setting up his presidential campaign. Emails viewed by BuzzFeed News show that subcontractors were asked to sign contracts under Dark Horse Associates in January despite asking that the contracts be signed under the campaign name. Staffers explained that because the campaign didn’t exist yet, the candidate preferred that contracts be signed under Dark Horse’s name.
In the days ahead of the exploratory committee’s launch, campaign staffers told some subcontractors that Angela Messam had requested that they cancel their old contracts with Dark Horse Associates and transfer all of their contracts to Hall Consultants LLC, a firm run by Latessa Hall, a family friend of the Messams. Hall did not respond for comment. Emails provided to BuzzFeed News by one subcontractor show that they provided new contracts for Hall Consultants to sign and that were sent to the Messams.
In contracts provided to BuzzFeed News that were signed by subcontractors and Angela Messam, she lists herself as the operations director for both “Wayne Messam For America” and “Hall Consultants, LLC,” even though WFA had hired an operations director who had moved from Washington, DC, to work on the campaign. Other subcontractors told BuzzFeed News they paid for some services through a Hall Consultants credit card under Angela’s name.
“I tried to get Angela to sign contracts for the consultants, but every time, she had a problem with it. I solved the problem, and she had another issue. It was a stalling mechanism,” Grant, the former operations director, said. “Ultimately, none of the contracts were signed.”
Two subcontractors who spoke with BuzzFeed News said that they signed those new contracts but ultimately, the campaign never returned them.
In February 2019, staffers worked with advisers to help coordinate travel and schedules for a March trip to Palestinian territories and Israel that the Messam campaign wanted to take to get a better understanding of the Middle East and foreign policy through tours and meetings with officials. Staffers worked with advisers to help coordinate travel and schedules. Campaign staffers and other aides told BuzzFeed News that one staffer had paid nearly $5,000 to cover a deposit for a security team, as well as the cost of tours, hotels, meals, and their own flight for the two-day trip and that they hadn’t been reimbursed by the campaign or the exploratory committee. Messam met with experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and human rights activists. They also visited Ramallah and Jerusalem, making trips to the Western Wall in Old Jerusalem, during the trip, according to press releases from the campaign.
Staffers told BuzzFeed News that they found Angela’s hyper-involvement with the campaign’s day-to-day operations “odd” and said that she was “super controlling” of the campaign’s bank account. Multiple staffers told BuzzFeed News that Angela insisted on having control over the campaign’s finances, including the campaign bank account, invoice system, payroll, and accounting. Staffers described heated exchanges between Angela and the designated finance director that led to Angela having sole access to the accounts.
“She used the nonpayment of bills as a power tool,” one staffer said. “She was the only person who had access to the bank account, and she used it as a power tactic.”
Staffers also spoke about the campaign’s “toxic” and “unproductive” work environment. A number of staffers told BuzzFeed News that Angela was prone to singling out employees, questioning why the campaign had to pay for the services those staffers were providing and threatening to fire them while Wayne was out on the campaign trail.
“It was like this internal firing squad in the campaign every day,” one staffer told BuzzFeed News. “She was certainly at the center of everything.”
Campaign staffers told BuzzFeed News that they planned on her having no involvement in campaign operations and that she would act only as the first lady to help promote Wayne’s campaign, but things quickly changed. When senior staff members attempted to bring in a federal compliance officer to handle the campaign’s finances, Angela refused, opting to use the Messams’ own personal accountant, a family friend.
This isn’t the first time that the Messams have been involved in financial conflicts with employees. In 2018, Eugene Philips, a former employee of the Messam’s construction company Asset Builders, sued Angela Messam and the company for denying him overtime pay. Phillips said he regularly worked 50-hour weeks before he was fired. Angela Messam filed a motion to dismiss the case on behalf of the company by saying Phillips was a salaried employee who was paid $60,000 a year.
Wayne Messam later told the Miami New Times that his company was “vigorously fighting this false claim.”
Problems for Messam started early. In mid-April, exactly three weeks after he had officially declared his candidacy, Grant sent an email, first reported by the New Times, to staff members explaining why the campaign had missed its scheduled payroll.
“Regretfully, I think it is only fair to inform you that Angela Messam, wife of Wayne Messam, has consolidated all of the financial and banking assets under her exclusive control and is currently refusing paychecks to staff,” Grant wrote in an email to all of the staff. “It is extremely unfortunate that many of us, who have been working day and night on this campaign for weeks because we believed in the candidate and cause, appear to be having our hard work rewarded by this unprincipled behavior.”
The Messam campaign later told ABC News its lawyer was looking into the email’s complaint; the Messam campaign did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News when asked if that review had ever been completed.
On an organized call after that email to answer questions about what was happening to the staff’s paychecks, the Messams told staffers that they didn’t know some of the employees or contractors and that they had assumed some staffers were volunteering for the campaign. They told other staffers that they just didn’t have the money to pay them for their work, according to multiple staffers and contractors who joined the call.
“You really think all of these people, all of these professionals, are going to work for free?” one staff member asked incredulously in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
“Don’t do us like Donald Trump,” another said on the call with the Messams, according to a staffer also on the call. “You need to pay people. You need to pay your staff.”
In the days after the conference call with the Messams, some contractors were left in the dark about the state of the campaign and reached out to staffers they’d worked with before a majority of the staff had left for explanations about what was happening.
“At some point, Angela Messam had requested all contracts/services be reassigned to her LLC (Hall consultants) and it seems like at least for the most part, they (Hall) never signed any of them, and it’s unclear if they intend to honor them,” one subcontractor explained to another in an email. “Basically no one, staff included, has been paid — and it’s unclear if we’re going to be, so we kind of all stopped work early last week to see if we could resolve things. At this point, don’t think it’s going to end well.”
“At the end of the day, It’s not like we’re some glorified unpaid interns, and that was never the understanding,” one staffer told BuzzFeed News. “We upended our lives; we were looking to make a paycheck. It comes down to the fact that I have to pay bills and provide for my family.”
Ryan C. Brooks is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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