If Sanders Runs in 2020, He Must Answer Hard Questions Concerning His Finances

For all the hype over $27.50 donations, Sanders was less than forthcoming about his finances in his 2016 campaign.
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For all the hype over $27.50 donations, Sanders was less than forthcoming about his finances in his 2016 campaign.
Photograph courtesy of Politico

Photograph courtesy of Politico

Yesterday, Politico reported that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has made his first overture to run for President in 2020, holding a meeting with his top political advisers last week. In attendance at the meeting were Our Revolution President Nina Turner, former campaign manager and longtime ally Jeff Weaver, and, communicating by phone, Sanders' wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders. While those questioned afterwards insisted this was not the sole focus of the meeting, it's fairly certain that this, the largest of Sanders' weekly meetings in a while, included some serious discussion about plans beyond the 2018 midterms and his Senate re-election campaign, which he will most likely win.

However, if Bernie does run for President again, he will not get off as easily as before. The field of potential Democratic candidates in 2020 will be the largest since 2008, and he may face ample competition from Senate colleagues such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. In addition, Sanders will have to answer tough questions from the media - who covered him more favorably than Hillary Clinton in the months leading up to the primaries, despite the consternation from supporters that they "blacked him out." There's plenty of baggage concerning Sanders' past, such as his rape fantasy essays and his decision to dump Vermont's nuclear waste on Latino communities in the Southwest, which never took hold in 2016 but which will receive more scrutiny should he run again.

But the question which concerns me most of all regards the money that flowed into Sanders' campaign. Despite the fact that only one super PAC endorsed him, RoseAnn DeMoro's National Nurses United, and his constant boasting of his supporters' average donation of $27.50, the Sanders campaign took in and spent far more money than it was comfortable admitting, much of it centered around a mysterious corporation, Old Towne Media, LLC.

4507 Penwood Drive, photograph courtesy of The Daily Kos

4507 Penwood Drive, photograph courtesy of The Daily Kos

The home above is the registered address for Old Towne, in Alexandria, VA. It has no website, no phone number, and no list of employees, and we still don't know who owns it. Since its conception in 2014, the only candidates it has bought media are Sanders and P.G. Sittenfeld, a long shot candidate for governor of Ohio. For all intents and purposes, the corporation appears to be a shell.

The company Old Towne came out of is Canal Partners Media, a Democratic ad buying agency that funneled its money into their front during 2016. According to OpenSecrets.org, the Sanders campaign purchased at least $83,000,000 in media time from Old Towne, giving its employees a 15% commission on expenditures, split with campaign manager Tad Devine's firm, Devine Mulvey Longabaugh. In addition to Devine, we know that two other people profited from the shell, Barbara Abar Bougie and Shelli Hutton-Hartig. According to a detailed Slate article from 2016, Bougie and Hutton-Hartig are Canal employees who had previously worked with Sanders on his first Senatorial campaign in 2006 with their firm Abar Hutton Media. While we know Devine and his firm profited at least $10 million for their services, the amount paid to Bougie and Hutton-Hartig remains unknown. 

Although media consultants are known to receive lots of money, especially during presidential campaigns, it's unclear whether or not it was worth it for Sanders to invest so much in these consultants .By the end of March 2016, he had spent $166 million on his campaign, but it was more than he was taking in. At the end of April, NBC News reported that while Hillary had spent about the same as she took in with $30 million still on hand, Sanders had a burn rate of 143%, with only $5.8 million on hand. The money that went to Devine and Old Towne meant less money for the grassroots, which the campaign had invested in early on but seemed to neglect over time.

This is not the first time Sanders has come under fire for shady money dealing. In 2006, his Republican Senate opponent, Richard Tarrant, accused Jane Sanders of profiting off of Sanders' media buys during his last two congressional campaigns. While Jane's name does not appear on the contracts in those campaigns, we do know that her daughter from a previous marriage, Carina Driscoll, received $65,000 for her work, and that Jane's ad buying companies both used the address of their home in Vermont. None of this is technically illegal, but it does look shady, especially taken in light of Sanders' future attacks on Hillary Clinton for her speeches on Wall Street.

Jane Sanders, currently under investigation regarding the bankruptcy of Burlington College, has been reluctant to comment on Old Towne. When asked about it by reporters from VT Digger, a Vermont-based news site, she claimed she had no idea what they were talking about and hung up the phone. And it's true that her name does not appear on the Old Towne contracts that Slate unearthed. But this statement from her husband in the Washington Post casts doubt on her claims:

“We do not put any TV ads on without Jane seeing it... she looks at the ads. She’ll make her comments. She’ll talk to Tad [Devine]. Tad will change it, because Tad also appreciates her views...She has very good instincts about what makes sense and what does not make sense, and when I’m moving in the wrong direction, or when I’m moving in the right direction. So yeah, I trust her advice very much.”

Sanders styled himself on the campaign trail as a bastion of integrity who stood above the mess that Citizens United has gotten us all into, but the way he collected and spent his money remains murky to this day. Did all these $27.50 donations go to paying the salaries of ad buyers? Did he and his wife profit from it? And can he live up to the virtues he espouses by coming clean about his finances and releasing his tax returns? The voters and the media will not be so eager to take him at his word this time.