Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and prominent gun control advocate now on a glide path to the Democratic nomination to challenge Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally in 2020, gave a series of paid speeches prior to his run, between 2011 to 2016, in the United States and China on behalf of a multi-level marketing company that pitches nutritional supplements.
Kelly’s paid speaking engagements have come under scrutiny following reports that, for years, he has delivered speeches to financial and pharmaceutical industry interest groups, including Goldman Sachs and AmerisourceBergen. In March, he also returned the $55,000 he took for a speech he gave last year in the United Arab Emirates, to head off criticisms that he could be swayed by foreign influence.
Kelly has sworn off donations from corporate PACs for his Senate run, and Republicans and some progressives have argued his past willingness to accept corporate money for speeches makes that stance hypocritical or nonsensical, an argument Kelly has rejected.
“Corporate money in politics affects everything in a dramatic and negative way,” Kelly said Monday during an interview with KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. “I want to represent Arizonans and not corporations.”
But Kelly’s work on behalf of Shaklee, a multi-level marketing company that sells supplements, raises further eyebrows as he battles for McSally’s seat in November. The contest is considered a toss-up and is expected to be one of 2020’s marquee Senate races. Democrats need to win at least three Senate seats in 2020 to win back control of the upper chamber and have any hope of enacting their agenda, a victory in Arizona is likely essential.
Kelly was introduced to the company through NASA, which has a long-standing relationship with the company and gives astronauts some of Shaklee’s products to use in space.
Multi-level marketing, sometimes called pyramid selling, relies on a company that sells products in bulk to an initial group of buyers, who then sells those products to a larger group of buyers, who then sell those products to an even larger group of buyers and so on down the line, with the profits primarily accumulating to those at the top of the pyramid structure. Amway, the company founded by the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is perhaps the best known MLM company. Others include Avon, Mary Kay, Herbalife and LuLaRoe.
The companies are controversial because of their often-aggressive marketing tactics and because significant numbers of people who buy the products are often unable to sell them further down the line, with some customers losing large sums of money. A 2011 study, from the Consumer Awareness Institute, found 99 percent of multi-level marketing program participants lose money. The FTC’s website encourages consumers to ask “tough questions” before participating in an MLM and warns them that many MLMs promise “miracle cures” that turn out to be “unproven, fraudulently marketed, and useless.”
Shaklee, headquartered in California, has been in business for more than 100 years. It sells weight-loss kits, shakes, multivitamins, prenatal vitamins, anti-aging products, household cleaners and “performance packs” to improve athletic performance, claiming more than 140 Olympic medal winners have used its products. The company markets its products as backed by scientific studies and as environmentally-friendly. It also boasts of its A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.
“Shaklee paid Mark a fee for speaking at our Shaklee Conferences because our Shaklee family has always been interested in the Space program and we thought Mark’s story would inspire our distributors,” the company said in a statement. “Throughout the company’s long history, Shaklee has become one of the most respected direct selling companies in the world and a trusted health partner to millions of customers.”
Kelly spoke at least three Shaklee events ― one in Orlando, one in China and one in Washington, D.C. – where he served as a motivational speaker of sorts for Shaklee distributors. The former astronaut often highlights his professional background when delivering lectures. In a video of his appearance in China, a Mandarin-language introduction says Kelly “lives in the hearts of the American people” before Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” begins to play and Kelly drives on to the stage on a motorcycle.
“Now it is up to you. It is up to all of you to take those tools that that Shaklee and [Shaklee CEO Roger Barnett] has given you and turn it into something big,” Kelly says in the video. “Each and every one of you can create your own successful Shaklee business, and it is the rewards from that business that will help you achieve your own dreams.”
It’s unclear exactly how much Shaklee paid Kelly for these appearances. 2011 congressional financial disclosures from his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), does show Shaklee paid Kelly $50,000 in speaking fees that year.
Shaklee and the Kelly campaign both noted Kelly and other astronauts have long used Shaklee products in space ― Kelly mentions using both its rehydration pack and its vitamins while aboard the space shuttle. The company’s relationship with NASA dates to the early 1990s, well before Kelly became an astronaut. Former astronaut Alan Shepard spoke at Shaklee conferences and served on the company’s board of directors in the 1980s.
“NASA has had Shaklee products on every space flight since the early 1990s as part of the fluid loading protocol to counteract blood volume loss that happens in space, and Mark found both the rehydration drink and vitamins to be effective,” Kelly campaign spokesman Jacob Peters said. “Mark has given speeches to a number of organizations since retiring from NASA and has spoken about his experience in space.”
Barnett, Shaklee’s CEO, has long been a supporter of both Kelly and his wife. He donated more than $18,000 to Giffords’ campaigns from 2006 to 2011. He’s already donated the federal maximum of $5,600 to Kelly’s Senate bid. Barnett has long donated to politicians in both parties, including Mitt Romney, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Orrin Hatch and Hillary Clinton.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the organization that produced the multi-level marketing study and the year it was produced as the FTC and 1999, respectively.