Super villains are no match for James Bond. But a shadowy pro-Bernie Sanders super PAC might be.
Daniel Craig, the actor famous for portraying the British spy, confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity that he donated nearly $50,000 this summer to Americans Socially United, an organization purporting to support Sanders’ upstart presidential campaign.
What Craig apparently didn’t know: The super PAC’s founder, Cary Lee Peterson, has routinely run afoul of creditors and the law — including stiffing one of the nation’s largest news companies out of a six-figure sum.
Sanders himself has disavowed super PACs, which have no contribution limits, and his campaign has demanded that Peterson curtail his operation. But there is little the U.S. senator from Vermont can actually do to stop passionate supporters — or opportunists — from launching such groups.
Super PACs are largely unregulated by the Federal Election Commission. Pretty much anyone can form one, including political professionals, college kids and even convicted criminals. And the prominence of social media means these unofficial groups may easily tap online support for a popular candidate like Sanders.
Campaign finance watchdogs say this creates a buyer-beware situation for donors, especially if the super PAC’s name is similar to that of the candidate.
Peterson, a self-described “lobbyist” and “diplomat” prone to making extravagant claims about his business operations, initially took this approach, naming Americans Socially United both “Ready for Bernie Sanders 2016” and “Bet on Bernie 2016” before the FEC made him change it. The super PAC has also failed to file campaign finance disclosures, in violation of federal law.
“The risk of donors being duped is very high,” said Paul S. Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which supports stricter campaign finance regulations.
At the extreme, Ryan added, super PAC operators may legally use the money they raise “to buy a yacht and sail off into the sunset.”
Several Sanders supporters confirmed they donated to Americans Socially United thinking the money was going to Sanders’ campaign.
Peterson says that he started Americans Socially United because he’s a fan of Sanders — nothing more.
“I just believe in the cause,” Peterson said in a recent phone interview. “If I don’t do it, who [will]?”
Peterson said it was an “honor” to receive $47,300 in July from Craig, adding: “James Bond for Bernie is pretty cool, you know what I mean?”
Craig — a U.S. resident legally able to make political donations, according to Laura Symons, his publicist — said in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity that he made the donation to Americans Socially United “in good faith” to support Sanders’ candidacy.
Told of Peterson’s legal history, Craig replied: “Currently, I have been informed of no evidence to question that my donation has not been used as intended. Should that situation occur, then clearly, I will review my position.”
Sanders’ campaign, however, certainly has a problem with Peterson.
“While Bernie 2016 is grateful for your enthusiasm, we are compelled to inform you that your current efforts are illegal and are causing harmful confusion for supporters of Senator Sanders’ campaign,” wrote Brad Deutsch, Sanders’ legal counsel, in a June 12 cease and desist letter to Peterson, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Peterson has largely ignored the letter’s demands, which include taking down his websites and social media pages.
Sanders campaign officials declined to comment.
For his part, Peterson says his past run-ins with the law, which include a pair of outstanding warrants in Arizona, are not relevant to the work he’s doing now.
“You don’t need to look back on my past,” Peterson said. “I’m going out there trying to make a difference.”
But those who have dealt with Peterson have learned not to always believe what he says.
The ‘official’ Bernie Sanders PAC?
Technically a so-called “hybrid super PAC,” Americans Socially United can collect donations in unlimited amounts from individuals, corporations and labor unions to spend — independently — in support of Sanders’ campaign.
From a separate bank account that only collects smaller donations of no more than $5,000 per person, it can also contribute up to $5,000 directly to Sanders’ presidential campaign, though there is no indication that it’s done so.
To hear Peterson tell it, his super PAC has grandiose plans for the 2016 presidential election.
But the group appears to be little more than a house of cards run by a man whose legal and financial history would give many donors pause.
According to court records, one of Peterson’s companies was recently ordered to pay two creditors more than $200,000 for breaches of contract. He was twice evicted from apartments in Texas. And he once defaulted on a few thousand dollars’ worth of student loans.
The two warrants out for Peterson’s arrest in Arizona stem from Peterson failing to appear in court for misdemeanor cases. One involves a disorderly conduct charge in 2014, and the other is connected to an alleged probation violation after Peterson was convicted in 2007 of an “extreme DUI” where his blood alcohol content was measured at 0.19 at 8:59 a.m. on a Tuesday.
Peterson, who says he is 35 years old but court records list as 36, blames “bad business associates” for some of his mishaps. But he declined to offer specifics.
“I’ve been through probably six coup attempts since 2002,” he said. “If you’re out there and you’re shaking and moving, not everybody is going to like what you do.”
He declined to discuss the warrants.
“Anything that happens in Arizona has to do with my personal family,” Peterson said. “I don’t care to do an interview about my personal family. I’m not Kim Kardashian.”
Meanwhile, the physical footprint of Americans Socially United is minimal. It exists mostly online and lists a private mail box in Las Vegas as its headquarters.
Call the toll-free phone number listed on Americans Socially United’s website — BetonBernie.com — and you’ll be told by a friendly voice that you’ve reached “Ready for Bernie Sanders 2016” — “the official Bernie Sanders 2016 political action committee.”
But the person answering your call isn’t a staffer at Americans Socially United or even a volunteer. Rather, the receptionist is an employee of a call answering service hired to take phone messages.
Furthermore, if you visit Americans Socially United’s Washington, D.C., address, you won’t find a single employee, or even a real office. Instead, you’ll find a suite of virtual offices provided by Regus — a company that provides, for a modest fee, “fully furnished offices” at “prestigious addresses.”
Regus employees in Washington said that Peterson is not a current client and should not be using their office’s address. Mail sent to Americans Socially United at this address was returned as undeliverable.
Peterson told the Center for Public Integrity that Americans Socially United was using virtual office services because it didn’t have the money for real offices. But he insisted that his super PAC had already spent more than $1 million backing Sanders’ presidential bid — paying for billboards, field organizers and pro-Sanders swag.
That number, however, is impossible to independently verify. Americans Socially United has not yet filed its mandatory mid-year campaign finance report with government regulators. Due July 31, that report would detail how much money the super PAC has raised and spent.
Nor has it submitted filings known as independent expenditure reports. By law, these reports are required when a PAC or super PAC spends $10,000 or more on materials that urge voters to support or reject a candidate.
Campaign finance reports submitted to the FEC must be signed, and those containing “false, erroneous or incomplete information” subject the signer to federal penalties.
In the virtual world, meanwhile, Peterson’s super PAC has attempted to build itself a higher profile.
On Twitter, Americans Socially United claims hundreds of thousands of followers, although it’s not clear how many of those are bona fide human beings. Many appear to be fake accounts that will follow a Twitter user for a small fee.
The super PAC has even hired a PR firm to briefly run images of Sanders — at least twice — on a digital billboard in Times Square in New York City, which it has, in turn, promoted online as signs of its legitimacy.
(You, too, could do the same for as little as $399 per press release, with the company sending you a digital snapshot “for an extra ‘pop’ of publicity.”)
“Like it or not, Bernie Sanders is going to have a PAC,” Peterson said.
“He needs us,” Peterson continued. “We influenced them to start their thing.”
He argues his super PAC has been doing “a damned good job” of raising awareness for Sanders.
As for failing to file his campaign finance reports, Peterson says his group is “new to all this” and blames “some technical issues” with the FEC’s software.
For weeks, he has promised to soon file the reports, but has failed to do so.
On Sept. 3, the FEC sent him a letter warning of potential “civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action” for not filing.
Craig, the actor known for playing James Bond, didn’t say how he initially came upon Americans Socially United. But other Sanders supporters found it by mistake.
Kostas Panagopoulos, a small business owner in New York City who says he is supporting Sanders’ 2016 bid because “the middle class needs a spokesman,” said he donated $100 via BetonBernie.com after happening upon the website.
“So where did the money go?” Panagopoulos asked when told Peterson’s super PAC was not affiliated with Sanders’ official campaign.
Author David Black, another New Yorker, also didn’t realize that BetonBernie.com wasn’t Sanders’ website.
Black ended up giving $100 to Americans Socially United when he wanted to donate to Sanders — a politician he believes is “the only candidate who is telling the truth about the situation in America today.”
“I donated online assuming it was a Sanders site,” Black told the Center for Public Integrity, adding that he intended to seek a refund and donate more money directly to Sanders’ campaign.
“I should have checked out the site better,” he acknowledged.
Jo-Ann Lax, a former teacher who lives in Boynton Beach, Florida, said she visited BetonBernie.com in August after receiving a mailing from Sanders’ official campaign.
“I typed in Bernie Sanders and several things came up,” Lax said. “I’m not a whiz kid on a computer.”
Lax said she wanted to donate $100 to Sanders because he’s “sincere” and “wants to help people.”
Meanwhile, Marcia Vecchione, a nurse from Fort Worth, Texas, said she pledged to give $20 via BetonBernie.com — thinking it was Sanders’ campaign — because “every little bit helps.”
And Larry Sobel, a cryogenics engineer at Raytheon Missile Systems and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, said he inadvertently gave $5 to Americans Socially United.
“I never looked to see where the money went,” Sobel said. “Since it is not deductible, I just sent it into the ether without thinking.”
BetonBernie.com — a website that also has mirrored versions at BetonBernie2016.com, PledgeSanders2016.com and SociallyUnited.org — presently offers little more to visitors than photographs and links to news articles about Sanders, the man who seeks to upset Democratic Party frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
There’s also a form to enter your personal information to either give money or pledge to. The super PAC even offers to provide a “Donor Support Package” — consisting of a T-shirt, yard sign, bumper sticker and window hanger — to anyone who gives at least $2,000.
The website currently lists more than 500 people who have collectively given, or pledged to give, tens of thousands of dollars. Most are small-dollar supporters, with many listing occupations such as teacher, retiree or disabled veteran.
Despite donor confusion, Peterson says Americans Socially United makes it “very clear” on both its website and toll-free hotline that the group is not associated with Sanders’ official campaign.
“Those who are confused know very little about [the] difference between [a] PAC and Campaign Fund [sic],” Peterson wrote in an email to the Center for Public Integrity. “Their lack of knowledge is not our fault.”
A history of hype
Americans Socially United is just one of eight political groups Peterson has registered with the FEC this year.
He’s also created the American Friends for Micronesia, the Congressional Committee on Cuban Affairs, the Congressional Committee on Eurasian Affairs, the Congressional Committee on Law Enforcement and Public Safety, the Congressional Task Force on Human Trafficking, the Every Vote Counts Restoring America Super PAC and the Independent National Committee.
Like Americans Socially United, none have filed campaign finance disclosures. And despite their names, none are officially affiliated with Congress.
Under the auspices of his Congressional Committee on Eurasian Affairs, Peterson recently traveled to Albania. There, he met with several political officials, including Edmond Panariti, the country’s minister of agriculture and rural development; Koço Kokëdhima, a Socialist Party member of parliament; and Florjana Koka, the mayor of the Albanian city of Saranda.
Peterson is purportedly working to create a partnership between Albania, Micronesia and the United States to develop a medicinal cannabis program. His trip earned him the headline “Florjana Koka meets U.S. Senator” in Shekulli, an Albanian newspaper owned by Kokëdhima.
The scheme would not be Peterson’s first attempted transnational venture. Over the years, Peterson has claimed to have secured billions of dollars’ worth of deals with foreign governments.
One 2010 press release issued by Peterson’s company ECCO2 Corp. touted discussions with the government of Haiti for a “$1.5 billion cleantech project to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate [the Haitian] economy.”
Another lauded discussions with the Nigerian government to launch a “$90 billion cleantech project to reduce carbon emissions.”
Representatives of the Haitian and Nigerian embassies in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment, but records indicate Peterson’s ECCO2 Corp. is facing financial and legal woes.
In 2012, Dow Jones & Co. sued ECCO2 Corp. for a breach of contract for failing to pay for advertisements in the Wall Street Journal — and was issued a judgment of nearly $170,000. A second company, Manpower Inc., also sued ECCO2 Corp. for a breach of contract — and was awarded a judgment of about $35,000 a year later. Representatives for both companies declined to comment.
Court documents in a separate 2011 case show that Peterson and his companies were evicted from an Austin, Texas, apartment after failing to pay rent. Peterson was also evicted from a second Texas apartment the following year, court records show.
“We were chasing money every month,” said Stormy Johnson, a Texas businessman who, along with his wife, rented an apartment to Peterson and his girlfriend in 2012 and later sued to evict them.
“All I was getting was excuses,” Johnson continued, adding that Peterson has still not paid the approximately $2,000 in rent, court costs and interest owed.
State business records further show that ECCO2 Corp.’s right to transact business in Texas has been involuntarily terminated, and the Securities and Exchange Commission has suspended trading of the penny-stock company that Peterson acquired in 2012 to be one of ECCO2 Corp.’s corporate partners.
A few years earlier, in 2009, the U.S. government tried to recoup Peterson’s roughly $4,000 in student loan debt — including interest — on which he had defaulted in 2000. When the Department of Justice tried to serve him, it found only a no-longer-current mailbox at a Mail Boxes Etc. in Arizona and an answering service with no forwarding information for him.
Last year, Peterson flirted with running for Congress — as the delegate from the American territory of Guam, an island in the Pacific Ocean.
Sen. Nerissa Bretania Underwood, vice chairwoman of the Guam Democratic Party, told the Center for Public Integrity she’d “never heard of this man.”
With super PACs now playing a more prominent role in presidential politics than ever before, federal regulators recently moved to take increased steps to ensure that donors are not duped by the proliferation of groups that can easily have a greater presence on paper — or online — than they do in reality.
In July, the six-member, often-ideologically gridlocked FEC unanimously voted to bar unauthorized PACs that support a single candidate from using that candidate’s name in the names of their websites or social media pages. Federal rules already generally prohibit political committees that are not authorized by a candidate from using that candidate’s name in their own names.
That could pose a problem for Americans Socially United, which still uses the monikers “Bet on Bernie” and “Ready for Bernie Sanders” on several social media websites, including Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.
In an email to the Center for Public Integrity, Peterson asserted that the FEC’s decision did not apply to him.
“Our social media pages or groups existed long before Senator Sanders announced his candidacy,” Peterson wrote. “This is something we cannot modify since we have [so] many members and followers.”
Through a spokeswoman, Ann Ravel, the FEC’s Democratic chairwoman, declined to comment for this story.
Matthew Petersen, the FEC’s Republican vice chairman, declined to comment about the specific details of Americans Socially United. But he said in general that the naming rules are “designed to avoid fraudulent misrepresentation” and “avoid confusion.”
Ryan, the lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, for one, thinks the FEC should be concerned by Americans Socially United’s activities.
“It seems like the violations are quite clear,” Ryan said, adding that Peterson “strikes me as Exhibit A” for why the naming rules are on the books.
“This guy sounds like someone who’s shown a tendency to rip people off in the past, has violated laws in the past and would seemingly have the capacity to dupe Bernie Sanders supporters out of their contributions,” Ryan said.
Editor’s note, Sept. 17, 2015: A key finding that noted that Americans Socially United had failed to file its mandatory mid-year campaign finance report was removed after the group submitted this paperwork to the FEC.
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