Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chief of staff investigated for campaign finance violations
As few as two years ago, was waiting tables. Now, she is the poster girl for progressive politics. At 29, she is the youngest woman to serve in Congress where she represents New York's 14th congressional district - including her hometown of the Bronx.
However, a complaint alleges that her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti put almost $1m in contributions from political action committees into private companies which he controlled. The complaint was filed on Monday with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and could have significant implications both for Chakrabarti and Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez’s office claimed that the $885,000 of payments were made for “strategic consulting” however, the complaint - lodged by the conservative National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) - says otherwise. "It appears 'strategic consulting' was a mischaracterisation of a wide range of activities that should have been reported individually," the complaint asserts.
"These are not minor or technical violations," Tom Anderson, director of NLPC’s Government Integrity Project, explained in a statement. "We are talking about real money here. In all my years of studying FEC reports, I’ve never seen a more ambitious operation to circumvent reporting requirements.”
“Representative Ocasio-Cortez has been quite vocal in condemning so-called dark money, but her own campaign went to great lengths to avoid the sunlight of disclosure,” Anderson added. “They believe their cause is so great that they don’t have to play by the rules. They believe that they are above campaign finance law."
It appears that Chakrabarti "orchestrated an extensive off-the-books operation to make hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenditures in support of multiple candidates for federal office," according to the NLPC complaint.
It alleges that Chakrabarti established two political action committees (PACs), the Brand New Congress PAC and Justice Democrats PAC, and then paid money from them into LLCs, Brand New Campaign LLC and the Brand New Congress LLC, which he also controls. Unlike PACs, LLCs do not have to submit detailed reports of all their significant expenditures. This raises questions over what the motivations were behind this potentially unlawful decision.
"Certainly, it's not permissible to use an LLC or any other kind of intermediary to conceal the recipient or purpose of a PAC's spending," Adav Noti, the former FEC Associate General Counsel for Policy, told Fox News. "The law requires the PAC to report who it disburses money to. You can't try to evade that by routing it through an LLC or corporation or anyone else."
"What's so weird about this situation is that the PAC that disbursed so much of its money to one entity that was so clearly affiliated with the PAC,” Noti stated. “Usually, that's a sign that it's what's come to be known as a 'scam PAC' - one that's operated for the financial benefit of its operators, rather than one designed to engage in political activity."
“[Their] explanations don't make a lot of sense on their face”, Noti added. “I read their explanation multiple times, and I still don't understand. If you want to start a business to provide services to campaigns - many of those are organised as LLC's, and you sell your services."
“Leadership starts with our choices,” Ocasio-Cortez stated in a Tweet last month. “That’s why I decided that no one on my staff will make less than $52k/year. It’s likely one of the highest entry-level salaries on the Hill. We pinch pennies elsewhere, but it’s worth every dime to pay a living wage.”
However, she also put a cap on what her staff could earn - of $80,000 per year. While this was hailed as another significant step towards a level political playing field, it has been pointed out that reducing staff salaries so that they needn’t declare their finances in detail is an old - and dirty - trick. Usually, someone in Chakrabarti’s position would earn more than the $126,000 required for all income - including gifts and investments - to be properly documented. This is a federal law applied to all congressional staff.
"One possibility - a strong possibility, based on the description they put out, is they just got really bad legal advice that somehow said they had to to do this," Adav Noti added. "But regardless, when they decided to use the PAC form, which they did, they subjected themselves to all the legal requirements that come with that."
However, Ocasio-Cortez’s office had already publicly made reference to their unique financial setup, pointing to their disruptive brand of politics. “It was payment for services,” Ocasio-Cortez spokesperson Corbin Trent told the New York Post. “We believe that complaint is politically motivated, basically intended to create a political story.”
Meanwhile, Chakrabarti himself took to Twitter - the platform on which his boss is famed for her three million followers. "The JD and BNC websites had this explainer on it before @ryangrim ever asked us. We were doing something totally new, which meant a new setup. So, we were transparent about it from the start."
The complaint comes amid further accusations that the Brand New Congress PAC paid Ocasio-Cortez’s boyfriend, Riley Roberts, two separate payment of $3,000 in the summer of 2017.
However, it is likely that Ocasio-Cortez will weather the storm. That her office had publicly mentioned the setup appears to indicate that there was no intentional deception. Furthermore, these complaints come amid Ocasio-Cortez’s probing of Trump’s alleged campaign finance violations - suggesting that Republicans could be returning the accusations in kind. However, only the FEC can decide whether or not Ocasio-Cortez - the Democrats’ fierce voice of reason and justice - will escape untarnished.