WASHINGTON (AP) — Bernie Sanders says he doesn't want a super PAC. Instead, he has Our Revolution, a nonprofit political organization he founded that functions much the same as one.
Like a super PAC, which is shorthand for super political action committee, Our Revolution can raise unlimited sums from wealthy patrons that dwarf the limits faced by candidates and conventional PACs. Unlike a super PAC, however, the group doesn't have to disclose its donors — a stream of revenue commonly referred to as "dark money."
Now, with less than one month to go before the Iowa caucuses, Our Revolution appears to be skirting campaign finance law, which forbids groups founded by federal candidates and officeholders from using large donations to finance federal election activity, including Sanders' 2020 bid.
A debate over big money in politics has riven the Democratic primary with Sanders and fellow progressive, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, leading the attack on rivals including former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have relied on big-dollar donors.
But while Warren has come under fire for courting wealthy financiers in her past Senate campaigns, Sanders and Our Revolution have largely avoided scrutiny during the primary, even as he has accelerated his criticism of others, among them Biden, for relying on super PACs founded by their allies.
In the case of Our Revolution, which aims to boost voter turnout for Sanders, the Vermont senator was the founder.
As recently as last week, Sanders continued his criticism.
"I do not have a super PAC in which billionaires make contributions," Sanders said during a town hall in Anamosa, Iowa. "I don't want a super PAC because our campaign and administration is there to represent working families, not the wealthy."
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.
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.
It won't have to publicly reveal its 2019 fundraising until after this year's presidential election. And money it raises between now and then won't have to be disclosed until the following year.
"Any entity established by a federal officeholder can only raise and spend money under federal contribution limits for any activities in connection with a federal election," said Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance expert and attorney with the good-government group Common Cause. "Our Revolution was undoubtedly established by Sen. Sanders, is subject to these laws — and is seemingly in violation of them."
Our Revolution spokesman Paco Fabian said the group did nothing wrong. He also differentiated its aim from conventional super PACs that spend large sums on TV ads supporting candidates, while adding that the vast majority of its money comes from small-dollar donors who gave on average about $20 per contribution in 2018.
"We invest our money ... in things like organizing and phone banks and canvassing voters on issues that matter. We aren't running ads or doing glossy mailers," he said.
Sanders' campaign did not respond to a detailed list of questions from The Associated Press.
In a statement, spokesman Mike Casca said: "Sen. Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign, in accordance with Senate ethics rules, does not direct or coordinate with Our Revolution."
Sanders has been highly successful raising money on his own from small-dollar donors, leading all Democrats in the fourth quarter of 2019 by taking in more than $34 million. And the amount Our Revolution ultimately raises will likely be a drop compared to the more than $96 million he took in last year.
But the money has financed a sprawling volunteer-driven operation to mobilize Sanders supporters that could be crucial to his chances of winning.
Last weekend, Our Revolution touted its outreach in eastern Iowa counties that voted for both Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, announcing a goal of enlisting 5,000 volunteers to help tilt next month's caucuses in Sanders' favor. On social media, it has amplified Sanders' speeches and campaign initiatives while attacking his rivals. It has also sent out a steady stream of fundraising emails, which explicitly advocate for Sanders' election.
Sanders founded Our Revolution to further the political movement galvanized by his unsuccessful 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination , though Our Revolution leaders say he hasn't held a formal role since its first governing board was appointed in 2016.
The group, which also includes scores of local affiliates across the U.S., initially backed a series of candidates in Sanders' mold during the 2018 midterms. But after he entered the 2020 contest, its focus has shifted toward his candidacy.
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and current Sanders adviser, was president of the group until she took a leave of absence to work on his presidential campaign. In May, she resigned from the role, which paid her $187,000 in 2018. Other Sanders surrogates, including radio commentator Jim Hightower and Palestinian rights activist Jim Zogby, have also served on the board.
Yet the group, which takes its name from a book written by Sanders, was beset by turmoil almost from the start with about a dozen leaving in protest. Our Revolution's willingness to accept money from undisclosed donors, which some saw as anathema to Sanders' message of campaign finance reform, was one of the reasons for the exodus, according to a former staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics.
Sanders has ripped groups on the right in the past for plunging money into the political system without disclosure. In 2016, he also attacked Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for accepting help from super PACs.
His website includes a detailed plan to get "corporate money out of politics" that calls for aggressive enforcement of campaign finance laws and an end to "political spending" by nonprofit groups like Our Revolution "who accept unlimited contributions or do not disclose donors."
Yet in September, he joined an organization-wide conference call celebrating Our Revolution's third anniversary and thanked the group for doing "some of the most important work that can be done in our country."
Our Revolution has touted its transparency in the past. It formerly disclosed the names of contributors on its website, though it did not list the amounts they gave and also masked donors' identities at their request. But after the first three months of last year, Our Revolution has not updated the list. The group says it will restart the practice soon after launching a new website.
It's not certain that the Federal Election Commission will consider Our Revolution's fundraising practices a violation. The FEC, which has wide latitude to interpret the law, has ruled in the past that similar groups founded by federal officeholders are limited to accepting contributions of $5,000 or less.
In recent years, however, they have taken a laxer approach toward enforcement. And after a recent resignation, the commission currently lacks enough board members to legally conduct business.
Either way, it's part of a broader trend of politicians and their supporters pushing the boundaries of what's permissible ever since the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, which paved the way for the flood of money now coursing through the political system. The decision is one Sanders has repeatedly railed against.
"The phenomenon of candidates using nonprofits to supplement their campaigns is a real problem," said Adav Noti, a former FEC attorney who is now with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. "This is a creation of Citizens United and the fact that the FEC won't crack down on coordination between these outside groups and candidates."