Update, Sept. 17, 2015, 6:50 p.m.: Nearly seven weeks after its mandatory campaign finance report was due and a week after the Center for Public Integrity raised questions about its operations, Americans Socially United filed official paperwork with the Federal Election Commission giving some details about its receipts and spending this year.
Super villains are no match for James Bond. But a shadowy pro-Bernie Sanders super PAC might be.
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.”