For weeks now, I've seen social media warriors put out the claim that Bernie Sanders has received $23 million in "illegal campaign contributions" from donors. Another common allegation concerns one contribution from a corporation that the FEC questioned.
These allegations stem from an FEC inquiry into the Sanders campaign's December, 2015 campaign finance report of small donations. In a 43-page letter, the FEC questioned contributions in excess of the legal limits, one contribution from a LLC, and the total contributions shown for individual small donors.
I reviewed the whole report -- all 99,000 pages -- when I first saw the rumors swirling. After looking at it, it seemed to me that there were some fairly egregious errors in the report, but nothing nefarious. At best, it was incompetence and little more than that.
The allegation that he received $23 million in "illegal contributions." He did not. Here's what actually happened. ActBlue transmitted their collections on his behalf to the campaign, along with a report on who made the donations. When the Sanders campaign transferred those ActBlue donations to their report, they reported the entire amount transmitted by ActBlue as the aggregate contribution per donor, instead of each small donor's total contribution to the campaign.
So, if John Q Public made three $25 contributions via ActBlue to the campaign, his report entry showed the $25 contribution with an aggregate for the cycle of $23 million, instead of the correct amount of $75. The same is true for Jane Q Public's $25 contribution, and so on. There wasn't anything illegal about John and Jane Q Public's contributions at all, but it triggered a query because the aggregate contributions for them was over the aggregate limit of $2,700 for the primaries or $5,400 for the primary and the general.
Again. Not illegal, and not dishonest. Just a really bad error that will surely be corrected.
Did the campaign receive excess contributions?
There are a number of people on the report who had given to the Sanders campaign via different organizations. In some cases, they'd given the maximum allowable under campaign finance law, and then donated via ActBlue or DFA again. Those contributions were refunded. So no, they didn't. And again, because the aggregate contributions per donor were not reported properly, it was impossible for the FEC to know without issuing an inquiry.
Here's the other part of the equation that I'm still not completely clear on. It appears that there were contributions and refunds, which sometimes differed by .01. It's possible that they double-reported some contributions sent via ActBlue which gave the appearance of excess contributions but were, in fact, simply contributions reported twice.
Did the campaign receive impermissible contributions from a corporate donor?
There was a contribution made to the campaign by a LLC, which the campaign refunded in October. My suspicion is that the contribution was possibly a setup by right wing operatives to try and set up Sanders for a news cycle of criticism (or two) about him taking corporate money.
The campaign refunded the contribution in October, as it should have.
But what about those YUGE contributions from Washington, DC?
This rumor comes from the site CampaignMoney.com, which shows aggregate total contributions for unitemized donors. Unitemized donors give less than $200 and are not required to be reported individually. Because Bernie 2016 is located in Washington, DC, those state reports aggregate all the unitemized donors in Washington, DC.
Small donors, folks, nothing more, nothing less.
It's really easy to look at one of these letters from the FEC and conclude that bad things have happened. But when you're running a small donor campaign with a lot of moving parts, it's just as easy to make honest mistakes. As far as I can tell, these were just honest mistakes, nothing more, nothing less. Mistakes on the part of the campaign, and mistakes on the part of people looking for something to hang on Sanders.
If you really want to have a hard look at hinky campaign finance reports, I'd suggest a deep dive into Ben Carson's reports. There's a grift that just keeps giving.