President Joe Biden last year condemned so-called dark money as a "serious problem facing our democracy." Now, the unpopular Democrat is embracing a super PAC that experts say used an illegal scheme to conceal its donors.
The group, Future Forward, is led by former Obama campaign officials and has earned endorsements from Bidenworld as the "pre-eminent super PAC" supporting the president's reelection bid. Central to Future Forward's success is its ability to raise massive sums of money—nearly $400 million in the past five years—to run ads boosting Biden and other Democrats in battleground states. But the tactics Future Forward used to anonymously raise much of that money could lead to its downfall, legal experts told the Washington Free Beacon.
The Biden-endorsed super PAC’s largest donor is its affiliated dark money group, Future Forward USA Action, which as a nonprofit is not required to publicly disclose its donors. Should a donor direct the nonprofit to transfer their donation to Future Forward, however, the super PAC must reveal the donor's identity in federal campaign finance disclosures. Future Forward USA Action in its 2021 tax filings acknowledged that it "promptly and directly delivered" $3.4 million in donations to Future Forward—a designation that would require the super PAC to reveal donor identities, according to former Federal Election Commission chairman Bradley Smith. However, Future Forward declined to disclose who contributed the cash.
For Republican election lawyer Charlie Spies, Future Forward's failure to disclose donors who routed money through the dark money affiliate is a violation of federal election law. Spies noted that similar schemes have led to federal charges and "major fines."
"Future Forward USA Action admitted to making over $3 million in earmarked political contributions, where they apparently obscured the true super PAC donor's identity by routing the money through the nonprofit," Spies told the Free Beacon. "The U.S. DOJ has sent people to prison for this sort of illegal activity, and the FEC has imposed major fines on conservative organizations accused of less blatant earmarking."
Biden’s embrace of Future Forward comes less than a year after he endorsed a bill from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) that promised to end the "scourge of dark money" corrupting American democracy. Biden told reporters in September that dark money, which consists of political contributions that cannot be traced to a donor, "erodes public trust" and should be outlawed. The Senate deadlocked 49-49 on the bill shortly after Biden’s remarks.
Now, as recent polls show Biden in a statistical tie in a 2024 rematch against former President Donald Trump, the Biden campaign is suggesting the president could soon headline fundraisers for Future Forward. Biden's 2020 campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon in July called Future Forward’s work "critical" to the president’s 2020 victory and said the super PAC would "again play a key role" supporting his 2024 bid.
Future Forward's latest FEC filing, meanwhile, suggests the super PAC has continued to use its dark money affiliate as a vehicle to obscure its donors from the public. The super PAC in public filings claims it raised just $67,000 in the first half of 2023. But weeks earlier, it told the New York Times it had raised $50 million during that time, indicating that the overwhelming majority of those funds flowed through Future Forward USA Action. The super PAC's dark money affiliate does not have to report its 2023 finances to the IRS until after the 2024 election.
"It looks like Biden's preferred Future Forward super PAC is violating the FEC's donor disclosure laws by laundering dark money donations through its related Future Forward USA Action nonprofit," Paul Kamenar, counsel to the National Legal and Policy Center watchdog group, told the Free Beacon.
The White House did not return a request for comment.
The Department of Justice has a history of prosecuting political activists for using dark money groups to launder funds to super PACs. Federal authorities sentenced Joseph Fuentes-Fernandez, the leader of a Puerto Rico-based super PAC, to 14 months in prison in 2022 for laundering political contributions to the entity through two affiliated nonprofits.
"The purpose of routing these donor funds through the nonprofit entities was exclusively to conceal the true identities of the donors," the Department of Justice said in a statement announcing the sentence. "Fuentes … deprived the people of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the FEC of information about the true source of hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing into Puerto Rico’s political system."
Years earlier, in 2017, the FEC imposed a $350,000 fine on nonprofit American Conservative Union for acting as a "pass through" to conceal the source of a $1.71 million super PAC contribution.
Future Forward did not return a request for comment.