Justice Democrats PAC Paid $200K to Cofounders' Consulting Firm

Middle Seat Consulting largest beneficiary from the AOC-linked PAC this year

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August 5, 2019

The political action committee for Justice Democrats disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a consulting firm that was co-launched by one of its own founders, Federal Election Commission filings show.

The Justice Democrats PAC, the committee that was instrumental in electing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y) into the House of Representatives, collected $820,000 in contributions during the first half of the year, its mid-year campaign records show. During this time, the PAC reported spending just south of $700,000.

The PAC's biggest beneficiary was Middle Seat Consulting, a digital firm that supports campaigns and groups focused on "racial justice, climate action, immigrant rights, intersectional feminism, economic justice, and more." Between Jan. 1 and June 30, the Justice Democrats PAC wrote checks totaling $205,151 to the firm for fundraising services.

Middle Seat Consulting was cofounded in early 2017 by Zack Exley, a former senior adviser for Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign. Exley is also cofounder of the Justice Democrats alongside Saikat Chakrabarti, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff until last Friday, who worked with Exley on Sanders's campaign, YouTube host Cenk Yugar, and left-wing talk radio host Kyle Kulinski.

Corporate D.C. filings show that Middle Seat lists Kenneth Pennington and Hector Sigala as its governors, both of whom worked with Exley and Chakrabarti on the Sanders campaign.

The PAC's payments to Middle Seat throughout the first half of the year were $184,751 more than its next highest-paid vendor, We Also Walk Dogs, a group that provides online tools for progressive organizations, who was paid $20,400 by the PAC. Left Rising LLC, a group with virtually no online presence, was the third highest-paid vendor at $13,200. Left Rising LLC was launched in Michigan last November, according to incorporation records in the state. Connor Farrell, the finance director in 2018 for left-wing Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, lists himself as the founder and chief executive officer of the group on LinkedIn.

The Justice Democrats PAC is on pace to far exceed the payments they sent to Middle Seat throughout the entirety of the midterm election cycle when the group took in $300,000 total. Ocasio-Cortez's campaign committee paid $35,000 to Middle Seat in May and June for its email lists. The campaign paid an additional $45,000 to the firm for advertising commission and email fundraising consulting.

Corbin Trent, Ocasio-Cortez's communications director in her Washington, D.C., office, was also a leader with Justice Democrats. Over a three-month span during the midterm elections, Trent simultaneously collected salary payments from both the Justice Democrats PAC and Ocasio-Cortez's campaign committee.

Natalie Trent, who appears to be Corbin's wife, has been the operations manager of Justice Democrats since June 2018 and is currently the custodian of records and treasurer for the PAC, according to its filings.

Justice Democrats did not provide a comment on the payments from the PAC to Middle Seat Consulting.

The far-left group has been accused of being a "slush fund" and came under heavy scrutiny over its financial operations after sending hefty payments to limited liability companies owned by Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff.

Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti were listed as governors of Justice Democrats on D.C. corporate filings in early March. However, in mid-March, the group submitted a new report to D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs removing both Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti as governors on its records.

An individual at the department told the Washington Free Beacon at the time that it was unnecessary for Justice Democrats to file that report, given they did so in March 2018 and are on a two-year cycle, which signaled news reports at the time scrutinizing the group's operations had prompted them to make the change.

It was announced Friday evening that Chakrabarti and Trent will both depart from Ocasio-Cortez's office.

Chakrabarti, whose last day was Aug. 2, will join New Consensus, a D.C.-based climate change nonprofit also co-founded by Exley, to focus on pushing the Green New Deal. Trent will leave Ocasio-Cortez's office within a month and head to her 2020 reelection campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez's office maintains the departures are not due to public fights with Democratic leadership and that the plans were made prior to the feuds, according to the Intercept.