Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., sat on the board of a political action committee that operated the type of “soft money” group she wants to abolish through a constitutional amendment, according to federal records reviewed by the Washington Examiner.
"Soft money" is cash that goes to an interest group or PAC. This means it is largely unregulated and avoids the firm limits placed on "hard money" that usually goes directly to candidates or parties.
Ocasio-Cortez was a board member of Justice Democrats, a group that sought to get progressive candidates elected, from November 2017 to 2018. The group was founded by Saikat Chakrabarti, a Harvard graduate and technology entrepreneur who became an organizer for Bernie Sanders during the socialist's 2016 presidential campaign, and progressive media personality Cenk Uyger. Chakrabarti is now Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff
During the 12-month period, Justice Democrats operated both a federal PAC, which is limited by law to taking contributions of $5,000 or less, and a separate tax-exempt organization known as a “527 group” that can accept unlimited contributions from corporations and super PACs.
The 527 committee, called “Justice Democrats Non-Federal,” was able to participate in election politics but is unregulated by the Federal Election Commission. 527 “soft money” groups are often criticized by supporters of campaign finance reform.
In addition, Justice Democrats merged with a registered Super PAC, a move that also appears to conflict with Ocasio-Cortez’s public objections to these types of unlimited fundraising committees. The Justice Democrats website does not mention the existence of the 527 organization and implies that it only operates a federal PAC that is subject to contribution limits and restrictions on corporate donations.
“Our designation as a Federal PAC does not allow us to receive anonymous or unlimited donations,” said Justice Democrats on its website. “Not only are we required by law to disclose all donors, but our platform is fundamentally opposed to corporate influence in American elections and pay-to-play politics in any form.” But the statement omits that Justice Democrats also operated the 527, which could take unlimited corporate cash.
The National Legal and Policy Center a government watchdog group, said Ocasio-Cortez’s work with soft money organizations and super PACs conflicted with her public statements.
“Representative Ocasio-Cortez talks a good game but her involvement with these shadowy entities show she’s more a creature of dark money rather than a crusader for transparency and accountability,” said Tom Anderson, director of the NLPC’s Government Integrity Project.
Ocasio-Cortez said during her campaign that she wanted to pass a constitutional amendment abolishing 527 groups and super PACs. According to her campaign website, Ocasio-Cortez supports “overturning, through a constitutional amendment, of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, along with other disruptive rulings such as the Buckley v. Valeo decision and SpeechNOW.org v. FEC.” Buckley v. Valeo is the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that created 527 groups.
The Citizens United decision and the SpeechNOW.org v. FEC rulings allow Super PACs to exist. Ocasio-Cortez has been a vocal critic of unlimited money in politics. A video of the congresswoman denouncing corruption in the campaign finance system went viral in February, shortly after she took office.
“Especially in the wake of Citizens United, I just felt that working class people were kind of locked out in a very permanent way from politics and from pursuing elected office themselves,” she said in an interview with Newsvoice last April.
A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to request for comment. Justice Democrats did not respond to questions about why it set up the 527 group.
Ocasio-Cortez has faced scrutiny for her involvement with Justice Democrats. The National Legal and Policy Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Committee last week alleging that Ocasio-Cortez, 29, and Chakrabarti, 33, may have violated campaign finance laws by funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the group into an LLC controlled by Chakrabarti, the Washington Examiner first reported.
Ocasio-Cortez’s board position with Justice Democrats coincided with her congressional campaign, a scenario that could have also broken FEC laws, the Daily Caller reported last week.
Justice Democrats Non-Federal, the 527 group, was first set up on Oct. 27, 2017, nine months after Justice Democrats established its federal PAC, according to Internal Revenue Service records. The group listed its address as the mailing address for The Young Turks, a TV news show hosted by Uyger. Its current director is Alexandra Rojas, who is also the executive director of the Justice Democrats federal PAC.
According to IRS records, Justice Democrats Non-Federal received over $30,000 in contributions, That included a $10,000 donation from Chakrabarti and $10,000 from a Massachusetts woman named Julie Schechter.
Justice Democrats announced on Nov. 1, 2017, that it was merging with Americans for All of Us, a registered super PAC that had stated it would “raise funds without regard to limit or source” in records filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Two weeks after the merger announcement, Americans for All of Us made a $10,132 donation to the Justice Democrats 527 arm, according to IRS records, and then disbanded.
“With AllofUs on our team, our number of supporters just doubled,” said Chakrabarti in a statement announcing the merger. “Our grassroots-backed infrastructure is expanding to challenge the establishment’s billionaire-backed infrastructure, and our populist message is already stronger than their lack of a message.”