Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti obtained majority control of Justice Democrats PAC in December 2017, according to archived copies of the group’s website, and the two appear to retain their control of the group, according to corporate filings obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.
If the Federal Election Commission (FEC) finds that the New York Democrat’s campaign operated in affiliation with the PAC, which had raised more than $1.8 million before her June 2018 primary, it would open them up to “massive reporting violations, probably at least some illegal contribution violations exceeding the lawful limits,” former FEC commissioner Brad Smith said.
Ocasio-Cortez never disclosed to the FEC that she and Chakrabarti, who served as her campaign chair, controlled the PAC while it was simultaneously supporting her primary campaign, and former FEC commissioners say the arrangement could lead to multiple campaign finance violations. The group backed 12 Democrats during the 2018 midterms, but Ocasio-Cortez was the only one of those to win her general election.
“If the facts as alleged are true, and a candidate had control over a PAC that was working to get that candidate elected, then that candidate is potentially in very big trouble and may have engaged in multiple violations of federal campaign finance law, including receiving excessive contributions,” former Republican FEC commissioner Hans von Spakovsky told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
And fellow former FEC commissioner Brad Smith told TheDCNF that if “a complaint were filed, I would think it would trigger a serious investigation.” He also noted that such a probe could potentially result in jail time for Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff, Chakrabarti.
Republican election attorney Charlie Spies told TheDCNF: “It looks like the campaign and PAC are under common control and the PAC was funding campaign staff and activities as an alter-ego of the campaign committee, which would be a blatant abuse of the PAC rules.”
Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti could face prison if the FEC determines that they knowingly and willfully withheld their ties between the campaign and the political action committee from the FEC to bypass campaign contribution limits, according to Smith.
“At minimum, there’s a lot of smoke there, and if there are really only three board members and she and [Chakrabarti] are two of them, sure looks like you can see the blaze,” Smith, a Republican, told TheDCNF. “I don’t really see any way out of it.”
Justice Democrats stated on its website from December 2017 until two weeks after Ocasio-Cortez’s June 2018 primary victory that she and Chakrabarti held “legal control” of the PAC, and corporate filings obtained by TheDCNF show that the two still serve on the three-member board of Justice Democrats on paper.
Political committees are affiliated if they are “established, financed, maintained or controlled by … the same person or group of persons,” federal election law states.
Smith said: “The admission makes it open and shut if someone wants to file a complaint with the FEC. I don’t see how the FEC could not investigate that. We’ve even got their own statement on their website that they control the organization. I don’t see how you could avoid an investigation on that.”
And if the FEC concludes that Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and Justice Democrats were operating as affiliated committees, “then anyone who contributed over $2,700 total to her campaign and the PAC would have made an excessive contribution,” which is a campaign finance violation, Smith told TheDCNF.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and Justice Democrats raised a combined $4.6 million during the 2018 midterm election cycle, FEC records show. There’s a maximum five-year prison sentence for anyone who knowingly and willfully receives a collective $25,000 or more in excessive campaign contributions in a single calendar year.
“If this were determined to be knowing and willful, they could be facing jail time,” Smith told TheDCNF. “Even if it’s not knowing and willful, it would be a clear civil violation of the act, which would require disgorgement of the contributions and civil penalties. I think they’ve got some real issues here.”