'Feel Bern' PAC comes under scrutiny

'Feel Bern' PAC comes under scrutiny
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A fundraising committee that raised more than a quarter-million dollars targeting supporters of Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Regulation: Biz groups push to scrap rule on reporting employee pay | GOP skeptical of Trump paid leave plan GOP skeptical of Trump plan for paid parental leave Sanders: Trump plan to cut Medicaid is 'just cruel' MORE has apparently spent little on the election activities it boasted it would.

The Socially Responsible Government PAC — which initially registered under the name “Feel Bern PAC” and has a website with pro-Sanders content — raised more than $260,000 in the first three months of 2016, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records.

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More than 80 percent of the $199,116 spent by the PAC went to six individuals associated with the group, online marketing and advertising costs, audience targeting firms and transfers to limited liability companies (LLCs) that were formed only months ago, according to a review by The Hill. Four individuals only received one payment, while founder Kyle Prall and the PAC’s treasurer collectively took in $26,000 in the first quarter.

Prall did not return calls from The Hill for comment. A phone number on FEC forms for the PAC’s treasurer belongs to a Texas business that said it had no record of the individual.

The Socially Responsible Government PAC spent $3,101 during a visit to the Florida nightclub E11even Miami on Feb. 29 and, days earlier, spent a total of $1,167 at The Palms hotel and casino in Las Vegas. E11even Miami bills itself as an "immersive adventure encompassing the luxury and sophistication of a one-of-a-kind Ultraclub," with DJs, aerialists, go-go dancers and "exotic acts." 

The purpose of the spending in Las Vegas and Miami is unclear, though federal election rules prohibiting the personal use of campaign funds do not cover PACs not run by a candidate or party. 

The PAC, which ended March with almost $76,000 in the bank, did make a $1,000 donation to the Democratic National Committee and a $500 donation to VoteRiders, a non-profit focused on election turnout. 

There is also nearly $15,000 in payments wired to unknown vendors through Upwork, a company that connects vendors to freelancers offering services from web developing, creative design and writing to accounting and consulting. There is not additional detail about what the contractors did.

When the PAC formed on Christmas Day, the committee was called the Feel Bern PAC — a shortened version of the “Feel the Bern” slogan co-opted by the Sanders campaign. It is against federal rules to use a candidate’s name in unaffiliated fundraising vehicles, so the PAC in March changed its name to Socially Responsible Government.

The sleek website for the PAC promises to help Sanders get elected and has embedded videos from the senator’s presidential campaign and logos that appear similar to his campaign’s. It is organized like a traditional campaign page, with tabs for issues, initiatives and how to volunteer. 

“All it takes is a small donation from everyone, and we will be more powerful than the 1%,” the PAC’s home page reads under a large “Our Mission” banner. “Donate today to support Bernie Sanders’ campaign to put the power back into the hands of the people.”

A large, red “Donate” button is juxtaposed next to a photo of Sanders. 

The PAC's website, at FeelBern.org, is different than another pro-Sanders website, FeeltheBern.org, that does not solicit any donations.

The website says donations will be used for supporting online, television and radio advertisements, phone and door-knocking drives and get-out-the-vote efforts that include helping people obtain voter IDs and driving people to the polls.

“This private political organization is not to be confused with Bernie Sander's [sic] Official campaign,” a disclaimer at the bottom of the site reads. 

The Sanders campaign sent a cease and desist notice to the PAC on Dec. 11 asking that the website change its design, according to documents obtained by The Hill. 

"While Bernie 2016 is grateful for your enthusiasm, we are compelled to inform you that current efforts are illegal and are causing harmful confusion for supporters of Senator Sanders' campaign," the letter reads, citing violations of intellectual property and trademarks.

The PAC appears, however, to have tapped into the small-dollar fundraising fervor that Sanders created. 

From December through March, the PAC collected $261,213, with more than $190,000 coming in checks of amounts of less than $250. Roughly 150 people gave $250 or more, and 18 contributed $1,000 or more.

Seth Gunning, an Atlanta resident who donated to Sanders’s presidential campaign, said he decided to look into the PAC after being targeted by a Facebook advertisement.

Gunning has now filed a complaint to the FEC alleging that the PAC has fraudulently solicited funds and misused its resources.

“The content of the advertisements purchased by the PAC (under the name ‘Feel the Bern’) are solely to generate additional contributions to the PAC rather than to support any candidate or educate an audience on a particular issue,” Gunning wrote in his complaint to the FEC, which he shared with The Hill. The ads, he says, use images of Sanders and similar branding to Sanders's presidential campaign and have language such as "Donate to Our Campaign."

From January to March, more than $66,000 was spent on ads placed on Google and Facebook and on firms that specialize in targeting audiences and obtaining page views.

The Socially Responsible Government PAC also paid three LLCs — LCGM, NHT Productions and DMF Marketing Solutions — more than $62,000 in marketing or advertising services, according to FEC records. The LLCs began receiving payments from the PAC anywhere between one and four weeks after they had been incorporated, a review of records by The Hill shows.

Joe Centrich, a member of Texas law firm Clausen & Centrich, incorporated DMF Marketing Solutions LLC and NHT Productions LLC. LCGM and NHT Productions have the same mailing address, a Michigan post office box, according to state regulatory filings. 

Centrich has worked as an attorney for Prall but told The Hill that he has no involvement with the PAC and does not work in campaign finance law. Centrich said he has no financial interest in the LLCs and was only paid the fees and costs associated with setting them up.  

Citing attorney-client privilege, Centrich said he could not say who asked him to set up the LLCs but said that his work on the matter is over.

Socially Responsible Government is set up as a hybrid PAC, which allows it to have a separate bank account where donors can send checks of unlimited amounts. 

Prall, who lives in Texas, has also started HC4President, a super-PAC with a similar website that backs Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHannity: I won't discuss Seth Rich story for now "out of respect for the family" Clinton slams Trump's budget: 'An unimaginable level of cruelty' Trump’s crisis of legitimacy MORE. That effort, created on Jan. 18, collected $1,482 in the first quarter. 

Prall has faced controversy in the past over two websites he founded, BustedMugshots.com and Mugshotsonline.com. 

The sites culled mugshots from public records and displayed them prominently in search engine results. When the photographed individuals asked to have the pictures taken down, the site allegedly charged them hundreds of dollars, according to media reports.

The company behind the sites, Citizens Information Associates, ended or settled a series of lawsuits, according to Centrich and media reports. 

 

— This post was updated at 9:07 p.m.