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Rep. Espaillat campaign paid thousands to online influencers who delivered flattering posts

Congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat speaks about funding for NYCHA outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Towers in Harlem. Oct. 26, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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This article was originally published on by THE CITY

The bloggers’ videos and articles do not disclose their financial ties to the Bronx and Manhattan congressman — exploiting a legal gray area as paid social media influencers play a growing role in campaigns nationally. Council candidate allies of Espaillat followed suit.


Campaign committees for Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) have paid nearly $15,000 to bloggers for posting hundreds of flattering articles dating to his first run for Congress in 2016, Federal Election Commission filings show. 

The bloggers’ posts do not disclose their financial ties with the Espaillat campaign — exploiting a legal gray area as paid social media influencers play a growing role in campaigns nationally. 

Two of those bloggers have also received payments from four candidates for City Council in the election that ends next Tuesday — classified in campaigns’ filings as “communications” or “advertising.” All the Council candidates campaigned with or were endorsed by Espaillat.

The Council contenders also have reaped favorable articles written by the bloggers, without disclosure to readers of the payments.

Under Federal Election Commission rules that apply to Espaillat and other members of Congress, only content that explicitly advises who to vote for — or not vote for — must include a disclosure that the campaign paid for the advertisement. 

The city Campaign Finance Board has even narrower disclosure rules — only requiring a notice that a campaign paid for a post if the campaign wrote or co-wrote the article or script.

Local and national election watchdogs worry the social media influencer exemption from disclosures leaves voters unaware when campaigns are paying for posts.

“Voters always have a right to know how candidates are spending money to influence votes. And paid social media influencers can have a significant impact on voters and on elections,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of campaign ethics watchdog group Common Cause New York. 

“That means they should be subject to effective disclosure requirements,” she added. “But campaign finance laws have generally not kept up with constantly evolving online political practices in just so many areas, and it badly needs to be brought up to date.”

‘Breaking’ Birthday News

Espaillat’s campaign reported $3,200 in nine payments between January 2020 and March 2021 to blogger Jose Zabala, telling the FEC that the money was for “social media coverage of events.”

A review by THE CITY identified more than 400 articles by Zabala on his website promoting Espaillat since his election to Congress in 2016. Of those, 83 were published in the 2020 election year, with more than 60 so far in 2021. 

Zabala posts multiple articles a day on his website, Zabala al día, as well as on WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram, where he has more than 14,000 followers and shares “News, entertainment and publicity,” according to the description on his profile. 

All of the posts are published in Spanish and cater to an international audience with roots in the Dominican Republic.

On his Instagram page in September, Zabala shared multiplebreaking newsposts of Espaillat’s birthday party at Inwood waterfront spot The Hudson, at the former site of La Marina.

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Jose Zabala (@zabalaaldia)

Each post read, in Spanish: “Breaking news: Today is congressman Adriano Espaillat’s birthday, considered the highest-ranking Dominican politician in the world, a true leader and indefatigable worker for his community.”

‘Rejecting Traditional Media’

Espaillat and his allies are regularly featured in Zabala’s coverage, with posts that range from copies of the congressman’s press releases to sit-down interviews in his New York office.

Zabala’s coverage of Espaillat last year intensified in the lead-up to the June primary, and again around Election Day.

Espaillat returned the praise both before and after his November 2020 reelection.

In an October 2020 interview posted on Zabala’s YouTube channel, Espaillat lauded the blogger in Spanish as a “pioneer” of digital media. In December, Espaillat presented Zabala with an official award through his congressional office, honoring the blogger’s “ten years of work in digital communications.”

Zabala Al Día/YouTube
Blogger Jose Zabala with an award presented by Rep. Adriano Espaillat.

“This type of media has already reached Congress, and we use it on a daily basis,” Espaillat said in the October video. “The truth is many candidates are rejecting traditional media, opting to concentrate entirely on digital media.”

Aneiry Batista, a volunteer on Espaillat’s reelection campaign who also serves as his Congressional chief of staff, told THE CITY that the campaign hired Zabala as “a freelancer” to record live videos of events on the campaign trail.

In a statement, Batista said: “Our campaign has consistently utilized new and traditional media to inform the community about issues that matter, such as housing, economic development, healthcare and important community programs.

“It is especially critical to make sure we communicate with our non-English-speaking constituents who may not seek out traditional media. This is why our ethnic outlets are such an important resource,” the statement continued. “We have reported this information accordingly to ensure full transparency.” 

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Jose Zabala (@zabalaaldia)

Audiences Kept in Dark

FEC regulations do not explicitly address social media influencers, Judith Ingram, an agency spokesperson, told THE CITY.

Unpaid influencers or groups “may engage in certain voluntary Internet activities for the purpose of influencing a federal election without restriction,” according to official agency guidelines.

The only paid content requiring disclosure of who financed it are communications that “expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office,” according to the FEC.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin last year found that influencers — or even “regular people” paid for by campaigns for digital communications — “pose a threat to campaign transparency, accountability, and informational quality.” 

That’s because their communications do not have to be disclosed to their audiences — as opposed to messages paid for by political action committees, according to the researchers.

“Without standardization of disclosure practices,” the researchers wrote, “differentiating between coordinated political campaigns and genuine grassroots political speech will continue to be difficult for the platforms.”

That leaves Espaillat, like other members of Congress, free to spend campaign funds on friendly media outlets — and those outlets free to keep audiences in the dark about money changing hands. 

Other Influencers at Work

FEC filings show Zabala is not the only blogger Espaillat’s campaign committees paid.

Espaillat’s most recent FEC filings, released last week and covering July through September, show his campaign reporting giving $500 to a Bronx outfit, Prensa & Comunidad Hispana, in July, and another $500 in August.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) speaks at a vigil in Inwood for homeless people who were fatally stabbed on the subway, Feb. 15, 2021.

Past FEC records show Prensa & Comunidad received $500 from the Espaillat campaign during the primary season in April 2020 for “virtual press conference coordination.” That was followed by another $500 for “press conference coordination” in October, shortly before voting began, plus $1,000 for a “charity raffle” in December.

Prensa & Comunidad Hispana then honored Espaillat with an award during its annual gala in March of this year.

Prensa & Comunidad is run by Ramón Mercedes, according to the nonprofit Dominican Studies Association, which said in a web post that Mercedes’ organization “honors the achievements of Dominicans abroad.” 

State business registration records show the company was founded in 2020 from an apartment on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx. 

Espaillat’s 2016 campaign committee paid $1,300 directly to Mercedes for “Media” and “Advertising,” coinciding with Espaillat’s initial election to Congress. 

Mercedes’ columns also run on blog posts on multiple website platforms, including El Jaya and Noticias VillaRiva, which is registered in the Dominican Republic.

Espaillat’s campaign committees have also paid a third local political blogger, Miguel Cruz Tejada, $7,200 since 2014 for “Spanish press releases,” “TV advertising,” “Publicity,” and as a “Media consultant.”

Zabala, Mercedes and Tejada did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.

Touting Council Candidates

Zabala has also been paid $3,950 by Council campaigns that include those of Democratic nominees Shaun Abreu, Pierina Sanchez and Carmen De La Rosa.

The campaign for Sanchez, a political newcomer vying to represent Morris Heights in The Bronx, paid Zabala $2,000 between March and May of this year, leading up to the June primary. The money went for “Comms,” according to campaign finance disclosures.

Screengrab/zabalaaldia/Instagram
A social media posts from one of the influencers paid by Espaillat, also promoting City Council candidate Pierina Sánchez.

Abreu’s campaign told the Campaign Finance Board that his $750 to Zabala in the weeks before the June Democratic primary was for “Promotion.”

De La Rosa, an Assembly member who is running to succeed term limited Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan), paid Zabala $1,200 for “Social Media” between October 2020 and June 2021. 

All have received regular coverage across his website in stories under Zabala’s byline, and social media platforms, particularly on Instagram, on dates that overlap with payments from the campaigns as registered with the city Campaign Finance Board.

In an Instagram news bite in May, Zabala wrote that Sánchez won a poll on the 14th District primary — but did not name or link to any poll. Sánchez’s campaign sent Zabala $1,000 four days later, CFB records show.

“Residents of the 14th District highlighted young Dominican activist Pierina Sánchez’s human quality, charisma, capability, experience, leadership, professionalism and vision for the 14th’s growth and progress, and favored her as the next Council member,” he wrote in Spanish, calling her “Adriano Espaillat’s candidate.”

Meanwhile, all three campaigns also paid Prensa & Comunidad before winning this year’s primary election, with De La Rosa spending $1,000 for “TV Ads,” Sanchez $500 for “Comms” and Abreu $600 for “Promotion.”

Also paying the company was East Tremont Councilmember Oswald Feliz (D-The Bronx), who reported giving $800 for “Media Ad.”

Sánchez campaign manager Samantha Cárdenas told THE CITY in an email that Zabala and Prensa & Comunidad Hispana “were both hired as communications consultants and advisors with a focus on securing coverage in Spanish press and reaching Spanish speaking audiences in the district.”

Feliz and a spokesperson for Abreu, in separate emails, told THE CITY that they paid Prensa & Comunidad Hispana for “communications” and “outreach” to the Hispanic community. 

James Burke, a spokesperson for Carmen de la Rosa’s campaign, said in an email the campaign paid Zabala and Prensa & Comunidad for Spanish-language outreach.

The campaign of term-limited incumbent Council member Ydanis Rodriguez had paid Zabala and Mercedes $250 each on the same day, just weeks before the 2017 general election, which Rodriguez won with 88% of the vote. His campaign reported each payment as for “Television Ads” followed by the explanation: “Ads in his show.” 

‘Preserve Dominican Representation’

Zabala is a former radio personality who created his blog, Zabala Al Día, a decade ago. He boasts of becoming the “first Dominican blogger to go to Congress,” and hosts a live streaming show, “La Comunidad y Su Futuro,” (“The Community and its Future”), that frequently features Espaillat advisor Jaime Vargas as a political analyst.

Zabala posted a video on his Facebook page in May where Vargas urged voters to preserve Washington Heights and Inwood’s Dominican political power in the following month’s City Council primary.

That June 2021 primary election was largely seen as a two-way race between de la Rosa, the assembly member and Espaillat ally, and Johanna García, the Cuban-American chief of staff to state Sen. Robert Jackson, the only Black, non-Dominican lawmaker representing the area.

De La Rosa won the primary after four rounds of ranked-choice voting, with 59.8% of the vote to García’s 40.2%.

Vargas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Unless you are among those who wants Dominicans to lose that seat and want Jackson, the senator who is running a candidate for this race who is not Dominican — if you want Dominicans to lose that seat, then don’t join us,” Vargas said in Spanish. 

“Vote for Carmen de la Rosa,” he said, “and preserve Dominican representation in Little Dominican Republic.” 

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