AOC’s chief of staff ran $1M slush fund by diverting campaign cash to his own companies

Source: The Hill | March 4, 2019 | Alana Goodman

Two political action committees founded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s top aide funneled over $1 million in political donations into two of his own private companies, according to a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission on Monday.

The cash transfers from the PACs — overseen by Saikat Chakrabarti, the freshman socialist Democrat’s chief of staff — run counter to her pledges to increase transparency and reduce the influence of “dark money” in politics.

Chakrabarti’s companies appear to have been set up for the sole purpose of obscuring how the political donations were used.

The arrangement skirted reporting requirements and may have violated the $5,000 limit on contributions from federal PACs to candidates, according to the complaint filed by the National Legal and Policy Center, a government watchdog group.

Campaign finance attorneys described the arrangement as “really weird” and an indication “there’s something amiss.” They said there was no way of telling where the political donations went — meaning they could have been pocketed or used by the company to pay for off-the-books campaign operations.

PACs are required to disclose how and when funds are spent, including for expenditures like advertisements, fundraising emails, donations to candidates, and payments for events and to vendors.

The private companies to which Chakrabarti transferred the money from the PACs are not subject to these requirements.

The complaint names Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti as respondents. It asks the FEC to investigate and audit the two PACs, saying they were engaged in an “an elaborate scheme to avoid proper disclosure of campaign expenditures.”

Tom Anderson, director of the National Legal and Policy Center’s Government Integrity Project, said: “It appears Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her associates ran an off-the-books operation to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, thus violating the foundation of all campaign finance laws: transparency.”

Chakrabarti, 33, is a Harvard graduate and technology entrepreneur who became an organizer for Bernie Sanders during the socialist’s 2016 presidential campaign.

He founded a PAC called Brand New Congress in 2016 and another called Justice Democrats in 2017, with the stated goal of helping elect progressive candidates to Congress. One of those candidates was Ocasio-Cortez, who last November, aged 29, became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

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In 2016 and 2017, Chakrabarti’s PACs raised around $3.3 million for the project, primarily from small donors. During this time, the committees transferred over $1 million to two shell companies controlled by Chakrabarti with names similar to one of the PACs, Brand New Campaign LLC and Brand New Congress LLC, according to federal election filings.

A few weeks after starting the Brand New Congress PAC, Chakrabarti formed one of the companies, Brand New Campaign LLC, in Delaware, using a registered agent service and mailbox-only address.

Over the next seven months, as small-dollar political donations poured into the PAC from progressives across the country, the committee transferred over $200,000, 82 percent of the contributions, to the company Brand New Campaign LLC. The payments were for “strategic consulting,” according to federal election filings. They were sent to an apartment address listed for Chakrabarti in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan.

In 2017, Brand New Congress PAC transferred another $240,000 to Brand New Congress LLC, also for “strategic consulting.” Another PAC co-founded by Chakrabarti that year called “Justice Democrats” transferred an additional $605,000 to Brand New Congress LLC in 2017.

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“It does seem like there’s something amiss. I can only think of really two likely possibilities for this sort of pattern of disbursements,” said Noti. “One is the scam PAC possibility — they’re really just paying themselves and they’re concealing it by using the LLC. The other is that there’s actually another recipient, that the money is going to the LLC and then being disbursed in some other way that they want to conceal.”

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