CLC Complaint Alleges FEC Failed To Take Action Against Secret Money Group

Eyes of George Washington from a one dollar bill peering through a torn black piece of paper

On May 19, 2021, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed suit against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) over its yearlong failure to enforce federal law against Big Tent Project Fund (Big Tent Project), which undermined voters’ right to know who is paying to influence our votes and our government. 

Big Tent Project was a Democratic nonprofit group which used secret money—otherwise known as dark money—to try to achieve its major purpose of defeating Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.

On May 7, 2020, CLC filed an administrative complaint with the FEC. The complaint alleged that Big Tent Project violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) by failing to register as a political committee and failing to report its contributions, expenditures and debts.

CLC further alleged that, even if Big Tent Project were not a political committee, it still violated federal law by failing to disclose the identities of contributors who gave for political purposes and funded its independent expenditures and by failing to report all its independent expenditures exceeding $250.

CLC’s administrative complaint provided compelling evidence that Big Tent Project’s major purpose was defeating Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.

Big Tent Project was formed on Feb. 12, 2020—the day after Sanders won the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, and one week after Sanders finished in a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses.

Jonathan Kott, the group’s executive director, stated publicly that he "started his group when Democratic donors approached him following Sanders'" early wins and that he formed the Big Tent Project "to act and make sure voters had all the information about [Sanders'] radical views before they voted."

Big Tent Project then spent millions of dollars to do just that. In a little over one month after its formation, it spent more than $4.8 million on ads expressly advocating against Sanders and targeting voters in the states whose primary elections followed New Hampshire’s.

Once Sanders’ path to the presidential nomination became nearly impossible, Big Tent Project’s election spending dropped precipitously.

Big Tent Project’s election spending, along with public statements by and about the group, overwhelmingly indicate that its major purpose was influencing the 2020 presidential election, namely by defeating Bernie Sanders.

But despite such compelling evidence, the FEC has failed to act on CLC’s administrative complaint for more than a year.

By allowing organizations like Big Tent Project to evade federal transparency requirements, the FEC leaves the American people in the dark about who is seeking to influence elections, thereby undermining voters’ trust in our democratic process.

The lack of consequences for illegal behavior also encourages Big Tent Project and others like it to continue to violate campaign finance laws.

Transparency around who is spending money to support or oppose federal candidates is a cornerstone of federal campaign finance law and critical to our democracy.

To reduce political corruption, we need a stronger FEC to enforce campaign finance laws and hold political candidates and their donors accountable. As part of this, the FEC should do more to investigate and act on potential violations.

Alex is a CLC legal fellow