Ocasio-Cortez Violated Campaign Finance Laws With PAC Scheme, FEC Complaint Alleges

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
April 3, 2019 Updated: April 3, 2019

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) accepted excessive campaign contributions and violated reporting rules by accepting undervalued services from a company run by her campaign manager, a complaint to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleged.

The campaign manager, Saikat Chakrabarti, set up the company, Brand New Congress LLC, which was paid $170,000 by Ocasio-Cortez and 12 other “far-left progressive Democratic candidates,” according to the April 1 complaint filed by the Coolidge-Reagan Foundation, a conservative nonprofit.

Yet the company provided services to the candidates worth “likely in excess of $1 million,” the complaint stated. “Brand New Congress provided cheap campaign services to Ocasio-Cortez and other candidates in part by failing to amortize its overhead and infrastructure costs among the amounts it charged them.”

Operating at a loss, the company was only able to sustain itself “through constant infusions of cash,” the complaint stated. The money mainly came from two political action committees—Brand New Congress PAC and Justice Democrats PAC—which together gave the company close to $900,000.

Brand New Congress PAC was run by Chakrabarti, the complaint claims, while Justice Democrats PAC was controlled by Chakrabarti and Ocasio-Cortez at least since late December 2017 and during the height of Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 primary campaign, according to the complaint, referring to filings with the government, media reports, as well as information on the Justice Democrats website.

Through this scheme, Chakrabarti’s company “provided illegal excessive in-kind contributions to Ocasio-Cortez and the other candidates,” the complaint alleged. In addition, Brand New Congress PAC and Justice Democrats PAC likewise violated contribution limits and reporting requirements “by funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Brand New Congress LLC to subsidize the services it was providing candidates.” Finally, Ocasio-Cortez also violated both contribution limits and reporting requirements “by accepting these illegal in-kind contributions.”

Chakrabarti became Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff after she assumed office.

Another Complaint

The two PACs already face a March 3 FEC complaint that alleged their relationship with Brand New Congress LLC violated campaign-transparency rules.

“The relationship between the Respondents appears to be incestuous, with likelihood that they were aware, or should have been aware, of the sweeping and apparently illegal nature of the enterprise,” the complaint stated.

PACs are required to report names and addresses of people who paid more than $200 to “meet a candidate or committee operating expense” as well as the purpose of the payments.

But the payments to the LLC were reported as “strategic consulting,” based on FEC filings reviewed by the National Legal and Policy Center, a right-leaning ethics and accountability nonprofit that filed the complaint.

Origins of Ocasio-Cortez

Ocasio-Cortez was one of several candidates picked by Justice Democrats in early 2017 from about 2,000 who responded to the PAC’s casting call. She “was trained at weekend ‘boot camps’ in the fundamentals of electoral campaigning and progressive policy,” the group stated in a Nov. 6 release.

A self-identified democratic socialist, Ocasio-Cortez ran with the support of the Democratic Socialist of America, the largest Marxist organization in the United States. Chakrabarti is the former director of organizing technology for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-avowed socialist.

Chakrabarti teamed with another Sanders campaigner, Zack Exley, as well as Cenk Uygur and Kyle Kulinski from The Young Turks, to found Justice Democrats in early 2017.

Exley is a former fellow at the Open Society, run by progressive billionaire George Soros. He also consulted for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and most recently founded an organization that produced an outline of The Green New Deal (pdf)—a plan to overhaul the American economy to fight climate change. The plan includes having the federal government guarantee a job for every American, eliminating methane emissions from cow flatulence, and abolishing the use of fossil fuels within 10 years. The plan is estimated to cost $52 trillion to $94 trillion over 10 years, based on estimates from the American Action Forum, a center-right fiscal think tank.

Update: The article was updated with more detailed description of sources used by the FEC complaint as well as a more accurate description of how the complaint refers to the relationship between Saikat Chakrabarti and Brand New Congress PAC.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.