After appearing to attempt to dodge an anti-corruption regulation earlier in the week, the campaign of South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has again tested the limits of campaign finance law.
Buttigieg spoke at an event on Thursday in Merrimack, New Hampshire, that was organized, at least in part, by VoteVets Action Fund, the “dark money” affiliate of VoteVets PAC, which has spent more than $1.4 million on television and digital ads to boost Buttigieg’s candidacy.
Federal campaign finance law bars candidates from coordinating with groups like VoteVets PAC that make independent political expenditures.
VoteVets Action Fund’s director of government relations, Will Goodwin, told Sludge that “VoteVets PAC maintains a firewall internally, so that any person working with Pete’s campaign is not involved in its independent advertising and activities in any way.” VoteVets Action Fund and VoteVets PAC are legally separate entities.
Still, the VoteVets entities and the Buttigieg campaign are working in concert. As the PAC spends millions on Buttgieg ads, Goodwin told the South Bend Tribune that the “dark money” arm “will be working with the Buttigieg campaign throughout the primary.”
In an email, a VoteVets spokesperson told Sludge that Goodwin, who appeared with Buttigieg on Thursday, “helped organize the event.” The Buttigieg campaign, however, is downplaying the involvement of VoteVets, telling journalist Akela Lacy that they were the ones who organized the event, according to a tweet. On its Facebook page and on Twitter, VoteVets refers to it as “our event.”
The Supreme Court in its Citizens United case gave First Amendment protections to independent expenditures because, in the words of Justice Kennedy, “an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate.” That ruling and the subsequent SpeechNOW case allowed groups like VoteVets PAC to raise and spend unlimited money on elections, but only if they don’t donate to or coordinate with candidates and their campaigns.
The New Hampshire event came hot on the heels of another instance earlier in the week in which the Buttigieg campaign appeared to push the boundaries of the law against coordinating with its relationship with VoteVets. On Wednesday, Buttigieg campaign strategist Michael Halle tweeted, with no external link or other content, “Pete’s military experience and closing message from Iowa work everywhere especially in Nevada where it’s critical they see this on the air through the caucus.”
Several money-in-politics experts and staffers of competing campaigns saw this as an attempt to guide VoteVotes PAC’s ad spending on Buttigieg’s behalf. “Was this meant to be a DM or did you mean to tweet out this instruction to your super PAC?,” responded Warren campaign manager Roger Lau in a quote tweet. Andrew Yang’s campaign manager, Zach Graumann, replied, “Yikes.”
VoteVets does not disclose its donors, but its super PAC affiliate is required to. Its largest donor so far this cycle, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, is Brian Sheth, the co-founder and president of private equity fund Vista Equity Partners, who gave $100,000. Defense policy consultant Matthew Jones gave the PAC $50,000.
In addition, several PACs have given VoteVets PAC up to the legal maximum of $5,000, including those affiliated with General Dynamics, Pfizer, Cigna, Dell Technologies, and multiple labor union organizations.
In the 2018 cycle, VoteVets PAC’s largest donor was Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, who contributed more than $1.5 million.
Correction: This article previously stated incorrectly that VoteVets PAC received donations from Waterfront Strategies.