Thursday, October 30, 2008

Paid flights to help Obama campaign were flight of fancy

A weekend in Nebraska isn't everyone's idea of fun, but hundreds of college students are disappointed they won't be able to campaign for Barack Obama there or in other swing states after a mysterious donor backed out.

Students from around the country, including a large contingent from UC Berkeley, had planned to spend the weekend before Election Day fanning out to places such as North Carolina, Georgia and other battleground states. And much of the financial burden was to be borne by an American in Italy known as David Gall.

But, as of last weekend, Gall is gone, too badly injured in a car accident to help out, he told organizers.

"He is bad with concussion and many broke things," read an e-mail sent, supposedly, by an Italian friend of Gall's. "I am very sad."

Gall himself did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.

Some aren't buying his story, though.

"The timing is just so suspicious," said Dan Schneider, a Pleasanton resident who goes by the online name "Delegate Dan," a reference to his participation at this year's Democratic convention in Denver. Gall's sudden departure was particularly disappointing to Schneider, who spent weeks planning the campaign blitz.

"I spoke to him four hours a day," Schneider said. "It was like a full-time job."

It was in the Rocky Mountain State that Schneider met UC Berkeley student Elliott Scales, an Obama supporter who also attended the convention. Through Schneider, AdvertisementScales and other students connected with Gall, who said he planned to donate airline miles to help the volunteers travel.

Soon, nearly 700 campaigners — mostly college students and their relatives — had signed up, and airline itineraries began arriving by e-mail.

"We started getting students on the Berkeley campus excited about going," said Scales, a 22-year-old political science major. Now "there are just a lot of people disappointed."

It would be one thing if Gall had just disappeared, organizers said. But they're also confused about the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Travel agents involved with the trip said Gall never bought any airline tickets. He simply organized itineraries and e-mailed them to participants.

It does not appear any identity theft or other crimes took place, Schneider said.

And then there's the mystery of his identity. After a little digging, organizers learned that Gall's name was an alias. But they still don't know who he is or why he would try to fool hundreds of people.

"This guy spoke passionately about the campaign," Schneider said.

The incident led students to break away from Schneider's plan to organize their own scaled-down campaign trips. Dozens of Berkeley students, for example, are traveling to Las Vegas this week, while jilted Harvard College students plan to hit New Hampshire.

"We've just moved on," said Jarret Zafran, a 21-year-old Harvard senior who had planned to lead a group in Georgia. "We just kind of redirected the enthusiasm."

The Obama campaign plans to look into the situation, said campaign spokesman Gabriel Sanchez.

"I hope their enthusiasm isn't dampened," he said. "I'm sure we'll do our best to reach out to them."

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