To campus supporters of Sen. Barack Obama, it sounded like a dream come true-- a fully subsidized flight to a swing state to campaign for the Democratic nominee in one of the most exciting presidential races in recent memory.
Under the program Dan's Delegation, about 700 students across the country, including more than 200 from the University of California Berkeley, were set to travel in the next few days to the swing states of Indiana, Colorado, Nebraska, Georgia and Missouri with frequent flyer miles donated by Americans living abroad, said Dan Schneider, a delegate from California to the Democratic National Convention who represents District 11 and is the main organizer of the campaign.
But the plane tickets were never purchased-- and after almost three weeks of intense preparation, the more than 200 UC Berkeley students in the delegation must find another way to campaign around the country.
The campaign started about three weeks ago when David Gall, an American residing in Italy, contacted the delegation about an "amazing opportunity." American Obama supporters living abroad would donate extra frequent flyer miles for students to fly to battleground states and campaign for Obama.
"I am a member of Americans in Italy for Obama ... Unfortunately, we can't just fly over to the U.S. to help campaign for Obama and other Democratic candidates," Gall wrote in an e-mail received Oct. 3. It went on to say, "Americans in Italy for Obama is willing to donate the necessary frequent flyer miles and points for at least 100 tickets to get people to the most important important battleground locations."
Schneider jumped at the chance and began recruiting students from colleges including UC Berkeley, Tufts University and Harvard University, where student leaders were also directly contacted by Gall through e-mail.
Jarret Zafra, president of Harvard College Democrats, said he had researched Gall on the Internet to verify his identity, including what he said was his hometown of Boulder, Colo., and his profession as a professor at an American university outside of Venice.
"I was thrilled ... We sent out an e-mail about the funding that we had, inviting them to join. In less than four days, we had 275 people signed up," Zafra said.
As the campaign progressed, Schneider and Zafra said they continued to speak regularly with Gall. On Oct. 24, Zafra received an e-mail confirmation of his plane reservation to fly to Atlanta, Ga.
But a day later, Schneider received an e-mail from a man residing in Italy who only gave his name as Giovanni, stating that Gall had been in a car accident.
"Last night there has been an incident with the car of David. He is in the hospital. He is bad with concussion and many broke things," Giovanni stated in the e-mail.
Upon reading the e-mail, Schneider and campus leaders immediately called Gall, but he did not pick up. They then called airlines to check on the reservations, only to find that despite the e-mailed reservations, no tickets had been bought.
"Honestly, I didn't know what to think. You know, I guess a lot of things crossed my mind-this seems like fishy timing ... or maybe it's just a bad coincidence," Zafra said.
Gall remained unreachable until the morning of Oct. 27. But around 8 a.m., Schneider said he received a phone call from Gall.
Upon receiving the call, Schneider put three campus leaders, including two from UC Berkeley, on conference call and began questioning Gall about his identity and about what had taken place during the past two days.
According to Schneider, Gall told them that the computer hard drive containing flight information was destroyed in thecar accident.
Schneider now says he does not know whether or not any miles were ever donated and has asked Americans in Italy for Obama to validate Gall's claims.
Though students have now disaffiliated themselves from the delegation, they are still planning trips to battleground states this weekend. Students from Harvard will go to New Hampshire to rally support for Obama, while UC Berkeley students are currently organizing a trip to Nevada.
"We are setting up this massive trip to Las Vegas by funneling all our volunteers into this program," said senior Niket Desai, a UC Berkeley organizer for the trip.
For former student campaign leaders, the ordeal continues to be confusing.
"Well, everyone was initially disappointed," Zafra said. "But at the end of the day, we have lost absolutely nothing. We didn't lose any money. We didn't lose any time campaigning."