Debunking the big ‘Bernie Sanders has a SuperPAC’ lie
Senator Bernie Sanders (Brookings Institution/Flickr)

Bernie Sanders doesn't have a super PAC. At least not in the sense implied by Politico's Kenneth Vogel, who referred to National Nurses United for Patient Protection as the “super PAC backing anti-super PAC crusader Bernie Sanders.” The thinly veiled charge of hypocrisy is dead wrong.

Sanders says on the stump that “it is unacceptable that we have a corrupt campaign finance system which allows millionaires, billionaires and large corporations to contribute as much as they want to super PACs to elect candidates who will represent their special interests.” According to Open Secrets, the total number of contributors who have given more than $200 to National Nurses United for Patient Protection this election cycle is a big, fat zero. The money comes from nurses' union dues. According to a survey of 1,100 nurses conducted by the Lippincott Nursing Center, unionized nurses make, on average, $57,000 per year.

Contrast that with Priorities USA, the single-candidate super PAC backing Hillary Clinton. Through the middle of last November, it had received 49 donations of $100,000 or more this cycle, 15 of which were over $1 million. The difference between a PAC funded by middle-income workers and one financed by those who can afford to write a $100,000 check may elude Howard Dean, who last week told MSNBC that "labor unions are super PACs Democrats like," but it shouldn't be too difficult for the rest of us to grasp.

More importantly, Michael Lighty, the nurses' union's director of public policy, says the nurses' super PAC functions just the way the Supreme Court's conservative majority fantasized that they would: with genuine independence from the Sanders' campaign. “In the case of real super PACs, the independence is a fallacy, and when they talk about us – comparing us to those other super PACs – it's a false equivalency,” he said.

From the landmark 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, which held that money equals speech, to Citizens United, the Court has always maintained that the independence of outside groups serves as a vital bulwark against corruption, or even the appearance of corruption. But the very idea of independence has become a sad joke, thanks in large part to the fecklessness of the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Under FEC rules, a candidate can appear at a fundraiser for his or her super PAC as a “special guest,” as long as he or she doesn't personally ask for more than the individual limit on contributions to federal candidates. But the head of the super PAC can follow the candidate's spiel by asking for any amount. The FEC recently ruled that a “fundraising event” can be a meeting between a candidate and a single, fat-cat donor, again followed by an ask by the super PAC for millions. The nurses' union's PAC hasn't held any fundraisers.

The FEC looks at coordination on the level of individual communications. It's kosher for a super PAC to have general conversations about strategy with a campaign, as long as they don't work together to produce specific ads. Michael Lighty says that while members of the nurses' union itself are regularly in touch with the Sanders campaign, the super PAC “is a segregated entity within the union,” and its personnel “have not had any strategic discussions with the campaign. I never talk to the campaign and my key staff does not talk to the campaign.”

A campaign's staffers can move to a candidate's super PAC after a 120-day “cooling off period” (there's no such waiting period for personnel moving from a super PAC to a campaign), but as the LA Times reported, “many of the super PACs and the campaigns are run by a revolving door of close friends and staffers, ensuring that the two sides share a common playbook even when they avoid tripping over the vague Federal Election Commission rules banning coordination.” Hillary Clinton's super PAC is headed by Harold Ickes, a former deputy White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton and a political strategist for Hillary Clinton's 2008 run. Its board of directors is sprinkled with Clinton surrogates like Jennifer Granholm and David Brock. Lighty says that nobody working for Nurses United for Patient Protection has worked on the Sanders campaign, or vice versa.

A super PAC can share vendors with a campaign, as long as the vendor states that it has established a “firewall” between the personnel working on the two accounts. Last August, The Sunlight Foundation reported that “a leadership PAC founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as well as super PACs supporting former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have each swapped consultants, staff and vendors with their respective campaign committees.” When asked whether the nurses' union's PAC shares any vendors, consultants or strategists with the Sanders campaign, Lighty responded: “Not that I know of.”

So, yes, there's a super PAC backing Bernie Sanders candidacy, but Sanders is absolutely right when he says his campaign doesn't have a super PAC. The million-dollar checks and rampant coordination between the other campaigns and their super PACs is nothing short of scandalous, and while it may be a scandal that's not widely known outside the Beltway, political journalists who suggest that Sanders is a hypocrite understand perfectly well why that claim is false.