Senate Candidate Hired Dem 'Dark Money' Lawyer While Campaigning Against Money in Politics

Mandela Barnes in 2018 / Getty Images
February 24, 2022

Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes has added one of the party's top "dark money" lawyers to his payroll while campaigning on a promise to crack down on undisclosed money in politics, according to campaign finance records reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon.

Barnes, Wisconsin's sitting lieutenant governor who has vowed to "stand up to the corrupting influence of dark money" and recently released a list of campaign pledges to combat secretive political spending, disclosed in his latest filing with the Federal Election Commission that he hired the Elias Law Group. The firm, which was founded last year by Democratic lawyer and former Hillary Clinton aide Marc Elias, has established itself as a leading defender and beneficiary of the left's massive dark money network.

Through a channel of opaquely funded groups, Elias has launched lawsuits around the country that push for changes to election rules, which would benefit the Democratic Party, while he represents Arabella Advisors, one of the primary vehicles for secretive political spending on the left. Barnes paid Elias's firm $27,000 on Dec. 31, according to the FEC records.

The hire could undercut Barnes's attempts to brand himself as a crusader against the corrupting influence of money in politics. Americans for Public Trust, a watchdog group that tracks political spending, criticized Barnes's decision to hire Elias while campaigning against dark money.

"It's ironic that Barnes says he has a plan to stand up to 'dark money' when he benefits from dark money," said Caitlin Sutherland, executive director of Americans for Public Trust. "Not only has he handed over tens of thousands of dollars to Marc Elias, the attorney behind the dark money behemoth Arabella Advisors, but the Arabella-managed North Fund, a 'shadowy' (even by D.C. standards) dark money group, is spending millions to attack Barnes's opponent. The hypocrisy is astonishing."

Barnes and Elias did not respond to requests for comment.

Elias Law Group works for Arabella Advisors, a for-profit consulting firm that "has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars through a daisy chain of groups supporting Democrats and progressive causes," the New York Times reported in April. "The system of political financing, which often obscures the identities of donors, is known as dark money, and Arabella's network is a leading vehicle for it on the left."

Elias in 2020 formed groups called the Democracy Docket LLC and the Democracy Docket Action Fund, which he has used to fund and cast legal challenges to election laws in multiple states, including Wisconsin, the Times also reported.

The legal campaign's funding sources are unclear. The Democracy Docket Action Fund is a project of a nonprofit called the North Fund, rather than a stand-alone entity, according to a disclosure on its ActBlue donation page reported by Fox News. The North Fund is, in turn, administered by Arabella Advisors. The North Fund has no website and has fought efforts from Montana officials to force it to disclose its donors, according to Axios, which called the organization "shadowy even by the standards of D.C. advocacy groups."

Barnes has in recent weeks made his opposition to dark money a key part of his campaign platform.

"Dark money has no place in democracy," he wrote on Twitter last Thursday.

In a Twitter post in January, Barnes wrote, "Tired: GOP and dark money stealing our right to vote. Wired: Passing the Freedom to Vote Act."

In December, he released a proposal to combat money in politics. He said he would support legislation to overturn Citizens United and promote spending transparency, arguing that "wealthy corporations and special interests subvert the will of the voters by spending millions in dark money to influence elections and elected officials."

Barnes is considered a frontrunner in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, which also includes hedge fund billionaire heir Alex Lasry and Wisconsin treasurer Sarah Godlewski. The winner will face Republican incumbent Ron Johnson in what is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races of the election cycle.