Donald Trump Jr. event canceled after Chase bank ends deal with Missouri conservative group

The biggest bank in the United States won't do business with a Missouri conservative group, forcing it to cancel an event next month featuring Donald Trump Jr.

The Defense of Liberty PAC hired WePay, a payment processor owned by JPMorgan Chase, for the Dec. 3 event at the St. Charles Convention Center, the group's founder, former state Rep. Paul Curtman, said Wednesday.

On Nov. 9, the company notified Curtman that it had canceled the contract, refunded the $30,000 already paid for tickets and would not do business with the group in the future.

“It seems you're using WePay Payments for one or more of the activities prohibited by our terms of service," a copy of the message, forwarded to The Independent, states. “More specifically: Per our terms of service, we are unable to process for hate, violence, racial intolerance, terrorism, the financial exploitation of a crime, or items or activities that encourage, promote, facilitate, or instruct others regarding the same."

Those terms are in an entry under the general heading of “Illegal" in the WePay list of prohibited activities.

Curtman said he is puzzled by the decision. WePay has not responded to his messages seeking more information, he said.

“My personal sense of why they did this is kind of along the same lines we have been seeing in our culture in recent years," Curtman said. “If someone has a different idea politically, there is an attempt to silence them or shut them down."

Neither JPMorgan Chase or its WePay subsidiary has responded to an inquiry from The Independent seeking comment.

“It threw a wrench right into the middle of everything," Curtman said. “We had vendors and small businesses and other people who were relying on this as part of their business. We are going to get back on track."

Curtman founded the Defense of Liberty group. He used that name for annual dinners while he was in office and has worked with Sen. Bill Eigel and former Sen. Jim Lembke to expand the organization and give it a higher profile.

The political action committee was organized in July and it held a fundraiser in August with conservative media personality Candace Owens.

That event drew about 1,200 people. The Trump Jr. appearance was expected to bring 3,000 people, Lembke said.

Lembke made the cancelation known Tuesday during an appearance on KFTK-97.1 radio in St. Louis.

“I think it directly speaks to a woke corporation that is trying to cancel free speech and specifically the speech of Donald Trump Jr.," Lembke said Wednesday in an interview with The Independent.

JPMorgan Chase has the biggest market share of deposits of any bank in the country, surpassing Bank of America this year.

The Defense of Liberty PAC hired WePay because it offered services that fit the event, Lembke and Curtman said. They could handle a variety of ticket prices and the company's costs were reasonable, they said.

“We have gotten to a point where the event has grown to such a size that we did not feel we could handle it in-house any more," Lembke said.

The evening's schedule included a $500 per person pre-event with Trump Jr. and a pricing plan for the auditorium with tickets ranging from $70 to $250 for front-row seats, Lembke said.

The group's events have been drawing officeholders and conservative thought leaders, with an audience from throughout the Midwest, Curtman said.

“I can't think of a single instance where anything we have done at any one of these events violates one of their terms of service," Curtman said. “They are trying to shut us down because they don't like our politics."

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

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Cybersecurity expert demands apology from Missouri governor over hacking claims

A cybersecurity expert targeted for investigation by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is demanding a public apology and payment for his costs for legal help and damage to his reputation.

Shaji Khan, an associate professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis and director of its Cybersecurity Institute, made the demand in a letter sent Thursday by attorney Elad Gross to Parson's office, several state and local agencies and a political committee that supports Parson.

The letter demands that the “Missouri Office of Administration, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Gov. Mike Parson, Commissioner Margie Vandeven, and Uniting Missouri PAC release separate, detailed and public statements apologizing to Professor Khan, to be shared on their respective websites, with Missouri and national press outlets, on social media sites, and to anyone the parties communicated their false accusations."

Khan was a source used by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story about how a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website allowed access to the Social Security numbers of educators. The letter states that he helped the newspaper after it agreed to withhold any story about the security issue until it had been addressed and teacher Social Security numbers were no longer at risk of public exposure.

“Professor Khan is a respected expert in his field who has repeatedly performed valuable services for the state of Missouri and its residents," Gross wrote. “The state, its officials and their political operations have no grounds to defame and harass a private citizen who helped protect Missouri teachers."

The letter is a “litigation hold request and demand," sent by attorneys to potential targets of a lawsuit to alert them to preserve their records or face sanctions in court.

On the day the Post-Dispatch's story was published, Parson called reporters to his office to read a statement accusing the reporter and those who helped verify what was found of being hackers who should be criminally prosecuted. He did not take any questions.

“This administration is standing up against any and all perpetrators who attempt to steal personal information and harm Missourians," Parson said.

In the Thursday letter, Gross demanded that “Gov. Mike Parson convenes and livestreams another press conference to apologize to Professor Khan, sharing and maintaining the video on the governor's social media pages."

Parson's office did not respond to a request for comment on the letter.

In his statement last week, Parson directed the Missouri State Highway Patrol to investigate and said he had notified Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson.

Last Friday, Khan got a call from the patrol, the letter states.

“The trooper confirmed that the interview regarded statements Professor Khan had made to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch," Gross wrote.

Gross told The Independent that Khan called him and the interview has not yet taken place.

“The interview will be happening," he said. “We are cooperating and it looks like it will happen on Monday."

Asked for information about the status of the investigation, patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Brown wrote that it is ongoing and could not comment further.

Thompson told The Independent earlier this week that the timeline for the inquiry is in the hands of the patrol.

Parson's call for prosecution of the reporter and others involved in the story was met with bipartisan criticism.

“Journalists responsibly sounding an alarm on data privacy is not criminal hacking," tweeted state Rep. Tony Lovasco, a Republican who has worked in software development, tweeted. House Democratic Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield said the problem is poor security on state websites, not journalists who identify a weakness.

The Social Security numbers were available through a publicly accessible website designed to allow users to check the credentials of educators. The website is currently disabled.

To verify that the numbers were being used in a way that made them available to anyone who visited the site, Gross wrote, Khan took three standard steps for checking security after he reached the webpage. It did not require a log-in to search the database of credentialed educators.

Khan viewed the source code and identified “a suspicious piece" of the code. He copied it to a text document, revealing the Social Security number of the individual found in the search.

“This entire process could be completed by anyone in a matter of just a few minutes," Gross wrote. “None of the data was encrypted, no passwords were required, and no steps were taken by the state of Missouri to protect the Social Security numbers of its teachers that the state automatically sent to every website visitor."

Uniting Missouri, a political action committee that backs Parson's agenda, on Wednesday pushed back against criticism of Parson's demand for prosecution. The PAC produced a video attacking the Post-Dispatch and stating Parson is “committed to bring to justice anyone who obtained private information."

Gross' letter states that Uniting Missouri has purchased two blocks of advertising on Facebook to promote the ad, targeting as many as 15,000 Missourians. He is demanding the PAC produce “another video apologizing to Professor Khan and purchases advertisements to promote that video as the organization is currently doing with its defamatory and false video."

John Hancock, chairman of Uniting Missouri, declined to comment on the letter.

Along with Parson's office, Uniting Missouri and the education department, the letter was sent to the Office of Administration, Thompson, the patrol, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Victory Enterprises, which manages the Uniting Missouri Facebook account.

Along with the demands for an apology, the letter includes a legal analysis that accuses the education department of violating a law barring agencies from disclosing Social Security numbers of people in public databases.

The law against hacking that Parson cited as a basis for prosecution requires intent to steal the information and does not make it a crime to report a data security issue, Gross wrote.

“The government's threat of prosecution would have a chilling effect on people of ordinary firmness and has had such an effect on Professor Khan," Gross wrote. “Professor Khan has already had to suspend his normal interactions with members of the press. Additionally, the government's retaliatory actions will deter other Missourians from assisting the state when they uncover wrongdoing."

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

Democrats say Missouri governor inflating cost of fixing website flaw found by reporter

When Gov. Mike Parson last week angrily called for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to be prosecuted for uncovering security flaws on a state agency website, he said the newspaper's actions could “cost Missouri taxpayers up to $50 million."

That amount, two Democrats on the House Budget Committee said Tuesday, is an estimate for providing credit monitoring to protect against misuse of personal data and a call center to answer questions from educators whose private data may have been exposed.

And, state Rep. Peter Merideth said, the estimate is not a very good one.

“He pulled it straight out of his ass," Merideth said in an interview with The Independent Tuesday.

Merideth, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, said in a news release that they asked nonpartisan appropriations staff to find out what Parson, a Republican, intended to do with the money.

They were informed, Meridith said, that the governor's statement was “a very rough and preliminary estimate," the funds that would be tapped have not been identified and the timeline for doing anything was unclear.

In the release, Meridith and Windham said the Post-Dispatch protected the state by holding the story until the data issue was fixed.

If the person who found the data had bad intent, Windham said, the price could have escalated.

“I remain concerned about potential costs to the state resulting from lawsuits and the like, however I'm far more concerned about the 100,000 educators whose sensitive information was handled with such negligence," Windham said. “Our state is incredibly fortunate that the person who found this vulnerability reported it to the state as soon as they did."

The reason the estimate is questionable, Meridith said, is that it may duplicate something the state has already been forced to do to protect the data of educators.

The state purchased 24 months of credit monitoring for potential victims of a data security problem at the Public School and Education Employees Retirement System, the Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday. The system notified its more than 128,000 active members and 100,000 beneficiaries of the Sept. 11 breach the same day that Parson lashed out at the story about teacher data.

The data for about 100,000 active educators was accessible through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website.

“I doubt it costs $50 million for 100,000 people to have credit monitoring," Meridith said.

In the story that enraged Parson, the Post-Dispatch reported a website set up for the public to search the credentials of individual educators exposed Social Security numbers. The numbers were visible embedded in the code that tells the computer how to display a page, which can be viewed by pressing the F12 key on both Apple and Microsoft operating systems.

The reporter viewed three Social Security numbers, the newspaper reported. The Post-Dispatch informed the department and refrained from publishing a story about the issue until the data was no longer available.

In the statement Parson read to reporters without taking questions, he said the reporter who found the issue was a hacker and that viewing the data was a crime. He said he referred the case to Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson and that the Missouri State Highway Patrol would investigate.

“This incident alone may cost Missouri taxpayers as much $50 million and divert workers and resources from other state agencies," Parson said. “This matter is a serious matter."

By making that statement as he described the law enforcement response, Meridith said, Parson was suggesting that the investigation would cost that much.

“He very clearly was trying to suggest that this was what we would have to spend to hold this guy accountable, or this is what we have to spend because of what this journalist did," Meridith said to The Independent. “The money is because of the exposure and the failure of the state to maintain the security of the data."

Parson defended his call for prosecution in a Facebook post the day after his public statement.

This information was not freely available and was intentionally decoded," Parson wrote. “By the actor's own admission, the data had to be taken through eight separate steps in order to generate a (Social Security number)."

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

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