In one of her many viral social-media moments, freshman Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio last month played a so-called “corruption game,” grilling witnesses at a House Oversight Committee hearing about the influence of super PACs and “dark money.” By some measures, the video of her questioning became the “most-viewed Twitter video of any politician,” including President Trump.
For her, the optics were perfect. Here was an idealistic young socialist using clever cross-examination techniques to expose for all the world the way in which savvy political operators can conceal misdeeds and hide from the public the sources of their financial support. Her questions generated a rapturous response across the length and breadth of the progressive Internet.
Fast-forward one month. Here’s Alana Goodman, writing for The Washington Examiner:
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.
And here’s the Washington Post, picking up on Alana’s report:
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)’s chief of staff helped establish two political action committees that paid a corporation he ran more than $1 million in 2016 and 2017, federal campaign finance records show.
You can read the FEC complaint yourself, but in a nutshell: It describes an arrangement where Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, co-founded two PACs — Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress — and then funneled large sums of money from those PACs into limited-liability companies he controlled, without disclosing Ocasio-Cortez’s involvement and without disclosing how that money was ultimately disbursed. Further, the complaint claims that Ocasio-Cortez was a board member of Justice Democrats when it disbursed these funds.
In fact, as a comprehensive report by Andrew Kerr at the Daily Caller News Foundation notes, Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti had legal control over the Justice Democrats PAC while it was supporting Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign.
What’s wrong with this? Well, apart from the obvious potential for financial self-dealing, Ocasio-Cortez’s team may well have violated disclosure laws and contribution limits. Moreover, as we know from Michael Cohen’s guilty plea and the ongoing campaign-finance investigation of President Trump, if evidence emerges that Ocasio-Cortez or Chakrabarti committed knowing or willful violations of campaign-finance law, then they could face criminal prosecution.
Interestingly, Justice Democrats last year posted a lengthy explanation for its unusual arrangement, outlining why it dumped PAC money into limited-liability companies. Crucially, it does not say that the PAC did so without engaging in any meaningful disclosure. Instead, it essentially argues that we should trust their good will, that they kept “prices as low as possible” while still satisfying FEC requirements.
In other words, the message is “Trust us, please.” But a key purpose of campaign-finance disclosure laws is to remove trust in favor of mandated transparency.
At the very least, hypocrisy abounds. It is simply stunning that Ocasio-Cortez would mount such a very high moral horse and berate witnesses at a congressional hearing while this “dark money” skeleton lurks in her closet. The very best possible read on her actions is that she read ambiguities into the law to her maximum advantage. A more realistic view is that she and her campaign chair (and now chief of staff) creatively evaded the obvious intent of campaign-finance law and will now rely on FEC gridlock and her enormous reservoir of progressive goodwill to skate straight through this scandal.
America’s byzantine campaign-finance regulations comprehensively and wrongly treat political speech as second-class speech, regulating it to a level that would likely shock the Founders. But these statutes and regulations are still binding. They’re binding on Donald Trump, and they’re binding on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Moreover, PAC disclosure rules and contribution limits are not obscure elements of campaign-finance law. As Ocasio-Cortez herself demonstrated at length in her viral moment last month, they’re a highly visible part of the ongoing public debate.
It will be an interesting irony if the FEC concludes that Ocasio-Cortez’s unusual financial arrangements pass legal muster. The champion of transparency and the enemy of “dark money” would have pioneered a new way to enrich friends and allies and hide campaign activities from the public eye. But then again, why should we be surprised? If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the long and sordid history of world socialism, it’s that the leaders of the movement always find a way to do very well while they purport to work for the public good.