Watchdog group accuses Sanders-aligned group of campaign finance violations

Watchdog group accuses Sanders-aligned group of campaign finance violations
© Greg Nash

A watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on Wednesday accusing a political nonprofit established by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Buttigieg campaign claims 'irregularities' in Nevada caucuses Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden MORE (I-Vt.) of accepting contributions in excess of federal limits while supporting the Vermont senator’s presidential bid.

The complaint, filed by Common Cause, alleges that the group Our Revolution has accepted donations in excess of the $5,000-per-individual federal limit for political action committees, while spending money in support of Sanders’s presidential campaign, including voter mobilization efforts in Iowa. 

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that Our Revolution, a political nonprofit group that was spun off of Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, has accepted nearly $1 million from donors whose contributions exceeded federal limits. 

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Sanders has long railed against the United States’s campaign finance system. But he has reserved particularly sharp criticism for super PACs, the outside groups that emerged in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Super PACs can engage in unlimited political spending, but cannot donate to or coordinate with campaigns for public office.

But Our Revolution’s nonprofit status means that it is not required to disclose its donors in the same way as other politically active groups like super PACs. Such nonprofits are often referred to as “dark money” groups.

In a statement, Our Revolution called the allegations outlined in the FEC complaint “simplistic and legally flawed,” and insisted that it was, in fact, more transparent than Common Cause.

“For Common Cause to claim that Our Revolution is simply an arm of the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign is an insult to our grassroots members and all that we have accomplished,” the group said. “Our Revolution is a membership driven organization independent from any political campaign or party. Our mission is much more than just electing Bernie to the White House, and Common Cause should know this given our work together on a myriad of democracy reform issues.”

The Our Revolution statement noted that the vast majority of its fundraising — 98.6 percent — came from more than 107,000 donors who gave an average donation of $20.04, and suggested that the timing of Common Cause’s complaint amounted to a political stunt, given that the FEC currently lacks enough members to take any action.

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“It’s hypocritical for a group like Common Cause that bills itself as non-partisan – yet takes money from undisclosed donors – to throw stones from their own glass house,” the statement said. “Not only is Common Cause’s complaint meritless, it is also aware that, unfortunately, the FEC is dormant and cannot provide an advisory opinion to clarify the matter. The timing of their filing at this point in the election season is unfortunate.”

A spokesperson for Sanders’s campaign did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment on the FEC complaint.

Common Cause’s complaint argues that the spending violates a federal law barring groups established by candidates for federal offices from soliciting, receiving or spending funds on federal electoral activity that exceed donation limits. 

The complaint alleges that, despite that prohibition, Our Revolution has spent thousands of dollars on digital advertising supportive of Sanders’s presidential bid. It also notes that the group “has publicly stated it is presently working hard to identify and turn out voters to caucus for Senator Sanders at Iowa’s February 3, 2020 Democratic caucuses.”

Sanders has sought to distance himself from the group. Speaking at a candidate forum in New Hampshire on Sunday, however, he said that federal rules prevent him from directly telling the group to stop supporting him. 

“If I got on the phone and I told them what to do, that would be a violation of campaign finance law,” he said.

Common Cause’s complaint, on the other hand, alleges that Sanders “has not severed ‘all material connections between’ " himself and Our Revolution. 

While Sanders has not held a formal role in the group since 2016, it has numerous ties to his political orbit. 

Our Revolution’s founding board members included the senator’s wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders; his former campaign spokesperson Michael Briggs; his former chief of staff Huck Gutman; a former political adviser to his presidential campaign, Richard Sugarman; and Brad Deutsch, who served as legal counsel to Sanders's 2016 and 2020 campaigns. 

Jeff Weaver, a longtime adviser to Sanders who now works on the senator’s presidential campaign, served as Our Revolution’s first president. He was later succeeded by Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who stepped down from her role with the group last year to serve as a co-chair of Sanders’s campaign. 

Our Revolution does disclose some of its donors who have given more than $250 in a single year on its website, though it notes that those disclosures are voluntary and it does not list contributors who do not wish to be named.

The website also notes that “annual contributions from a single source are limited to $5,000 unless approved by a majority vote of the Board of Directors.”

— This report was updated at 3:26 p.m.