Sanders' kickoff of nonprofit answers some questions, raises others


BURLINGTON — Bernie Sanders outlined the goals of his new nonprofit organization Our Revolution in a livestream to thousands of supporters Wednesday night, pledging an unending fight focused on electing strong candidates and promoting progressive ideas throughout the country.

Speaking from Burlington's Old North End, the Vermont senator said the organization — a 501(c)(4) designated by the IRS as a "social welfare" group — will focus on electing 100 candidates and passing seven ballot initiatives in the 2016 election cycle.

Such groups can engage in political activities as part of their mission but can't participate directly with campaigns.

While Sanders has historically decried 501(c)(4)s for their ability to skirt campaign finance laws and pour millions in untraceable money into influencing elections, he touted his organization as a tool to revitalize democracy by electing a wave of bold, liberal candidates.

The candidates include Vermonters like Tim Ashe, who is running for re-election to the state Senate from Chittenden County, and Mari Cordes, who is running for a House seat in Addison County. The list of candidates Our Revolution plans to support includes all levels, from local school boards up to federal House and Senate races.

"These are people who will be fighting at the grass-roots level for changes in their local school boards, in their city councils, in their state legislatures and in their representation in Washington," Sanders said.

Much of his hour-long speech touched on familiar themes from his presidential campaign, and he promised to work toward achieving the lofty goals he helped secure in the Democrats' national party platform.

"If anybody thinks that document, and what is in that platform, is going to be on a shelf collecting dust, they are sadly mistaken," he said. "We are going to make that document the blueprint for moving forward in this country. We changed the conversation regarding the possibilities of our country. That is what we changed."

Environmentalist Bill McKibben, a stalwart Sanders surrogate, introduced him and reminded viewers that the electoral battles Our Revolution would help wage were only a slice of how to truly make change.

"We are going to have to organize, we are going to have to march, we are going to have to protest. There's going to be civil disobedience," said McKibben.

But, he added, "we need many, many Bernies, and we need them at every level of our political system."

The group's launch came on the heels of a staff revolt.

According to Politico, at least five of the organization's 15 staffers quit last week over frustrations that it would focus too much on media work instead of prioritizing grass-roots organizing.

Staff frustrations boiled over after Sanders' former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, was appointed president of the organization.

"Jeff would like to take big money from rich people including billionaires and spend it on ads," Claire Sandberg, the former organizing director of Our Revolution, told Politico. "That's the opposite of what this campaign and this movement are supposed to be about and after being very firm and raising alarm the staff felt that we had no choice but to quit."

Our Revolution was established as a 501(c)(4) or nonprofit social welfare group, a status that allows for unlimited donations without having to reveal its benefactors. Because it is not registered as a political action committee, Our Revolution must limit its political work to less than 50 percent of all annual spending.

If Our Revolution spends more than $1,000 in connection with a federal election, those expenditures must be reported to the Federal Election Commission.

Furthermore, Sanders' ties to the group have raised red flags. Under the McCain-Feingold Act, federal politicians cannot be associated with issue advocacy groups as part of the law's "soft money" ban. Sanders vaguely dismissed his potential connection to Our Revolution in his speech Wednesday.

"As a United States senator, I will not be directing or controlling Our Revolution," he said in the livestream. "But I have the utmost confidence that this leadership team and the board being assembled shares the progressive values we all hold."

Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said that although Sanders may not have an official title at Our Revolution, the McCain-Feingold Act specifically applies even if an officeholder "directly or indirectly established" the organization.

Ryan pointed to a publicized news article on the Our Revolution website that refers to the group as "Bernie Sanders' new organization."

"Our Revolution is touting on its home page that it's Bernie Sanders' new organization," Ryan said. "That to me strikes me as an admission that it was established by Bernie Sanders. The legal conclusion I draw from that is that the McCain-Feingold soft money ban applies."

If applied to Our Revolution, the McCain-Feingold rules would take away some of the major benefits of a 501(c)(4). The group would be mandated to disclose donors who give more than $200 and could not accept donations from corporations or unions. There would also be a $5,000 cap on individual donations per year, according to Ryan.

While Sanders said he would have no official role in the Washington, D.C.-based organization, its key players are some of his closest advisers. They include Weaver as president, as well as Shannon Jackson, a close aide of Sanders' on the presidential trail, as executive director.

According to registration documents filed with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs on July 15, the senator's wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, is one of five registered board members of the organization. However, NBC News reported Wednesday that she has resigned "in part out of legal concerns over how close the senator should be to the group."

The other directors of Our Revolution are Sanders' former campaign spokesman, Michael Briggs; Huck Gutman, former chief of staff to Sanders; longtime adviser Richard Sugarman; and Brad Deutsch, who served as the lead legal counsel to his presidential campaign.

Besides the registration information with the D.C. agency, the only other publicly available information regarding Our Revolution will be in the nonprofit's Form 990 filed with the IRS, which won't be available until next year.

"Tracking the money behind these groups is incredibly tough, and there is virtually no transparency," said Josh Stewart, a spokesman at the Sunlight Foundation. "We often refer to 501(c)(4) groups as dark money groups because they are not required to disclose their donors, unlike other groups that conduct political activity like a campaign or a PAC. The public deserves transparency in our politics, and all too often these types of groups don't deliver."

A number of politically connected 501(c)(4)s, including President Barack Obama's Organizing for Action, voluntarily disclose donors. VTDigger reached out to multiple officials at Our Revolution regarding whether voluntary disclosures were planned, but got no response.


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