Bernie Sanders's Illegal Dark Money: What is Our Revolution Hiding?

Before he ran for president in 2016, Bernie Sanders was a typical Congressional backbencher who'd never accomplished anything despite longevity in office that is longer than most of his supporters have been alive. But since running for president last time, Bernie Sanders has become a multimillionaire, increased his non-work income by 150 times, and sprouted nepotist nonprofits and dark money groups.

It's the dark money groups that I want to talk about today.

To hear him on the campaign trail, Sanders loaths big money and Political Action Committees. He has made a big deal about signing a pledge not to take money from pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies. (No such pledge about gun manufacturers, though.) His campaign has prided itself on how small his average donations are, claiming that it proves his grassroots bona fides.

One advantage of creating a pledge or setting a standard is that you get to write in the loopholes and craft the standard to fit your message and hide your own corruption. Bernie Sanders is a master at this. So while he goes around claiming he abhors Super PAC money in politics (and yet accepting the endorsement and assistance of the National Nurses Union, a Super PAC according to their own FEC filings), he has something much more amenable to dark, unaccountable money to do much of his dirty work: a political 'nonprofit.'

Organized under the Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) - not to be confused with nonprofits under 501(c)(3), which are prohibited from supporting candidates - Sanders's dark money group 'Our Revolution' functions as an arm of the Sanders presidential campaign, but unlike the Sanders presidential campaign, Our Revolution does not have to disclose its large donors. The AP is now reporting that Our Revolution not only has raised millions of dollars in dark money, but that it raised a lot of it in six-figure contributions from sources it does not have to make public (and has not).

While it is legal for political nonprofits to be doing this in general, though, it turns out that what Our Revolution is doing, in particular, is probably illegal. Organizations founded by candidates for office, it turns out, cannot skirt contribution limits and reporting requirements, no matter what form of cover it's using.
The campaign finance act says groups “directly or indirectly established” by federal officeholders or candidates can’t “solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend funds” for federal electoral activity that exceeds the “limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements” of the law. Those limits are currently set at $2,800 for candidates and $5,000 for political action committees.
And is Our Revolution obeying the law? It sure doesn't seem that way.
Our Revolution has taken in nearly $1 million from donors who gave more than the limits and whose identities it hasn’t fully disclosed, according to tax filings for 2016, 2017 and 2018. Much of it came from those who contributed six-figure sums.
The group is likely raising much more money in 2019 and 2020, but even the figures aren't required to be released until after the 2020 elections, let alone the contributors. The money may not seem significant compared to the nearly $100 million Sanders has raised by getting individuals to slam the donate button hundreds of times a day to deceptively project grassroots support, but unlike a campaign, the nonprofit has no accountability, no real expenses, and an infrastructure essentially backed by the campaign. The nonprofit can supply office volunteers to Sanders, but it's the campaign that is paying for the office staff, equipment, and more.

But Our Revolution could be doing something far more dangerous and nefarious than supplying volunteers to a campaign. It can do the low-budget dirty work the campaign does not want to associate itself with but can benefit from nonetheless. One such possible operation is paying troll firms. It is a matter of record from the unanimous assessment of the western intelligence community that Russian troll firms benefited Sanders in 2016. Humor me, and assume, for argument's sake, that the Sanders campaign wanted to hire their own troll firms. If the Sanders presidential campaign pays a troll firm to go after its opponents on social media, we'd find out, and the resulting story would make life difficult for a candidate obsessed with projecting a pure image.

If, in this hypothetical, Our Revolution paid the troll firms, however, we'd be none the wiser for it. We wouldn't even know. Russian troll firms are incredibly cheap, and there is a vast swath of them available with "experience in the west." Troll firms can be hired to build up and tear down targets for a couple thousand bucks a pop, something a relatively-small budget, dark money group like Our Revolution might find appealing.

But we don't know that they're doing that. As a matter of fact, we only know about one thing Turner and Sanders did with some of the six-figure checks Our Revolution is racking up, however. Turner loaned almost $200,000 to the Sanders Institute, a supposedly social welfare nonprofit also set up by Bernie and Jane Sanders. The Sanders Institute had little to show for its half-million-dollar budget, but it did keep some people in Sanders's family and campaign employed. Early last year, it unceremoniously closed its doors.

Sanders's campaign is claiming that it doesn't coordinate with the group named after his book, which is irrelevant to the law, but the claim also doesn't pass the laugh test. Our Revolution's former president Nina Turner is currently Sanders's campaign chair. After losing a race for Ohio Secretary of State in 2014, Turner became a surrogate for Sanders's 2016 presidential race, and then moved onto the payroll of Our Revolution and back onto the presidential campaign in 2019.

Democratic voters - and the American people - deserve to know what Bernie Sanders's dark money group run by his own campaign chair is up to. We deserve to see the books. We deserve to see all communications either between the presidential campaign and Our Revolution, or to or from anyone who has ever served both the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution, in whatever capacity.

What is Bernie Sanders hiding?

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