Rookie U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been dragged into an emerging campaign finance scandal that could potentially compromise her carefully crafted reputation as the ‘people’s candidate,’ as well as call her political platform into question just three months after the 2018 midterm elections that saw her become the youngest-ever female member of Congress. At the center of the scandal is her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, who is accused of diverting more than $1 million in donations from her supporters into a slush fund controlled by two private companies registered to him, ostensibly for the purpose of obscuring what the money was used to do.
It will be recalled that Ocasio-Cortez has built her budding reputation on the platform of “clean” politics, with the congressional freshman repeatedly emphasizing that her campaign does not accept money from corporate political action committees (PACs), which she has described as “dark money.”
The allegations, which are detailed in a complaint submitted to the Federal Election Commission on Monday, could significantly curtail her burgeoning influence among Democrat ranks on Capitol Hill. This comes at a time when she has become powerful enough to threaten House Democrats from swing districts with primary elections if they do not vote along party lines.
Possible Campaign Finance Law Violations
The Washington Examiner reports that between 2016 and 2017, ex-Bernie Sanders campaign organiser Charkrabarti set up two PACs called ‘Brand New Congress’ and ‘Justice Democrats.’ Between them, they raised over $3.3 million predominantly from individual donors across the country to help Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez get into Congress. In that time, the sum of $1,045,000 was apparently paid in several tranches to ‘Brand New Campaign LLC’ and ‘Brand New Congress LLC’ – two private companies controlled by AOC’s Chief of Staff.
The payments were apparently made for the purpose of “Strategic Consulting,” which is – to say the least – extremely ambiguous, if not outright suspicious. Even more tellingly, while Brand New Campaign LLC is registered in Delaware, there are no Secretary of State records for Brand New Congress LLC, and the time or location of its incorporation remain unknown. This raises the obvious question of what “strategic consulting” work these companies did to earn over $1 million in fees within that time period despite having no recognized activity or personnel apart from Charkrabarti.
Investigators will want to get to the bottom of the matter, not only to establish whether Charkrabarti in fact embezzled or otherwise misused campaign funds, but also to find out what exactly or how much Ocasio-Cortez knew about the arrangement. From her constitutents’ point of view, as a House member who has nailed her colours to the ‘clean campaign finance’ mast, it is particularly important to determine whether she was in fact an accomplice to potential violations of campaign finance laws, given her close relationship with Charkrabarti.
‘Trying to Conceal Something’
Speaking about the issue to the Washington Examiner, former FEC lawyer and senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, Adav Noti stated that the only reason anyone would go through the convoluted route of setting up a federal PAC and then routing money through it to a self-controlled private company is to be able to hide where the money really went to.
Commenting on the opaque “consulting” arrangement between the PACs and Charkrabarti’s LLCs, he said:
They’re either confused or they’re trying to conceal something. I can only think of really two likely possibilities for this sort of pattern of disbursements. 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.
The story gets worse still. According to a statement from Justice Democrats obtained by the Washington Review, the PAC is unable to explain why exactly it paid Charkrabarti so much money. In other words, more than $1 million of funds gathered from individual donors may have simply disappeared into an unaccountable web of Capitol Hill grift.
Did Charkrabarti use donations from Democrat voters for personal, illegal/unethical or undeclared purposes? Where exactly did all that money go, and who else was in the know? Was his current boss aware of the dodgy arrangement? These are the questions that will remain unanswered for the time being until investigators unravel the mystery.
Red or Blue, Populism is an Act
While it has not been established whether, or how much, Ocasio-Cortez knew about the matter, it is again another reminder that hero-worship of politicians who claim to “fight for the little guy” is generally not a great idea, because their populist rhetoric tends to fall some way short of their practical reality. Just last month, a video of Ocasio-Cortez ripping into America’s porous campaign finance regulations during a Congressional hearing was liked and shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media, receiving rapturous applause from everyone from James Corden to Katie Couric.
‘We have a system that is fundamentally broken.’ — Rep. @AOC is explaining just how f*cked campaign finance laws really are pic.twitter.com/7rRXf9pD6Z
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) February 7, 2019
Just a month later, it may emerge that her own campaign may have run afoul of the very laws she insists are already toothless. If that turns out to be the case, her likely defense will be that she knew nothing, and Charkrabarti will then be fired to save face, after which he will return to New York to contemplate the miseries of living as a million dollar grifter in his expensive Manhattan apartment.
It turns out that populists everywhere really are the same. Whether it is Ocasio-Cortez proclaiming herself the cleanest politician in America and then failing the smell test, or Trump promising to “drain the swamp” and then expanding it, or Hugo Chavez promising free ponies for every Venezuelan and then running the country into the ground, or Muhammadu Buhari promising to “fight corruption” in Nigeria and then spending six months away in a foreign hospital, populists are renowned for two things: hot air and self interest.
Especially self interest.