AOC-Backing PAC Paid $300K to Company Founded by PAC's Founder

Justice Democrats PAC considered a 'slush fund' for AOC's now-chief of staff

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez / Getty Images
March 15, 2019

A left-wing political action committee instrumental in the election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) paid $300,000 to a company cofounded by one of the PAC's founders.

The Justice Democrats PAC—which was cofounded by Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, who also acted as her campaign chair—helped power her surprise victory over Joseph Crowley during the Democratic primary. Chakrabarti founded the group with former Sanders campaign adviser Zack Exley, YouTube host Cenk Uygar, and leftwing talk show host Kyle Kulinski.

The PAC raised $2.5 million in contributions and disbursed around the same amount during the midterms. Filings with the Federal Election Commission show the PAC paid $300,000 for fundraising consulting to Middle Seat Consulting LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that supports "campaigns, organizations, and causes fighting for racial justice, climate action, immigrant rights, intersectional feminism, economic justice." The money was disbursed to Middle Seat between March 2017 and December 2018.

Exley, who worked alongside Chakrabarti on the Sanders campaign before launching Justice Democrats, is a cofounder of Middle Seat, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Middle Seat does not disclose the individuals who are associated with the firm on its site. However, the LLC was incorporated in D.C. in early 2017 and lists Kenneth Pennington and Hector Sigala as its governors, according to business records filed to D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Kenneth Pennington was the digital director for Sanders's 2016 campaign and also worked alongside Chakrabarti and Corbin. Hector Sigala acted as Sanders's digital media director and ran Sanders's Twitter account during this time.

Middle Seat counts Ocasio-Cortez as a client on its website and her campaign committee paid the firm $33,666 for email consulting from early August to mid-November last year. Around this time, Corbin Trent—Ocasio-Cortez's then-campaign spokesman and current communications director—was receiving overlapping payments from Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez's campaign.

"They've found a way to dodge transparency," said Tom Anderson, the director of the National Legal and Policy Center's (NLPC) Government Integrity Project when asked about the payments to Middle Seat. "This is the ultimate dark money machine. If you want to go to school to learn how to make a dark money machine in politics, go to these guys because they've mastered it. And this is an example of it."

The NLPC recently filed an ethics complaint against Chakrabarti and Ocasio-Cortez over the group's payments to limited liability companies established by the congresswoman's chief of staff.

Throughout the 2018 election cycle, the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress PACs, also launched by Chakrabarti in 2016 alongside Exley and Trent, sent nearly $1 million to Chakrabarti's LLCs, according to a complaint that was filed last week to the Federal Election Commission by the NLPC. The group alleged that Chakrabarti ran a "slush fund" by diverting contributions to the companies in an "elaborate scheme to avoid proper disclosure of campaign activities."

The Daily Caller recently found that Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti obtained majority Control of the Justice Democrats PAC in late 2017 and still appear to maintain that control. Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti did not disclose this relationship to the FEC, which a former FEC commissioner said could get a candidate into "big trouble" with potential violations.

"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," Hans von Spakovsky, a former FEC commissioner, told the Caller.

When asked what work they performed for both Justice Democrats and the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, Pennington said that Middle Seat works for a variety of clients and their services includes building websites, graphic design, online advertising, and email marketing.

Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez's campaign did not respond to inquiries on Middle Seat Consulting.