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Ocasio-Cortez leads righteous crusade against ‘dark money’—even if she often gets it wrong

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She rails against ‘dark money’ but she isn’t always using that term correctly.

In her role as villain of the right-wing, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has been attacked on the most absurd grounds. Conservatives declare that she wants to “take away your hamburgers” and send America into the depths of a Venezuelan hunger plague. She was falsely accused of hiring her boyfriend to work in her office.

Those criticisms are as weird as they are untrue. But one last week was harder to shake, when Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff came under fire from right-wing sites claiming the funding of her upstart campaign for the House of Representatives was worthy of an FEC investigation.

Then, earlier this week, she endured criticism for falsely claiming that a group attacking her was the subject of a massive fine from the Federal Election Commission.

While the campaign complaints will take time to sort out, they’re popping up for a reason. Ocasio-Cortez has been on a crusade against money in politics. But she’s also been frequently wrong about how money in politics works.

The idea that a freshman politician doesn’t understand the wonky world of political spending shouldn’t be a slight against her, except she keeps talking about the process. And not a lot of people seem to notice. 

Her most viral moment is inaccurate

In February, a viral video of AOC’s “lightning round game” became the most viewed political video in the history of Twitter. Here it is:

It’s also based on a less than accurate premise. In the beginning of the video, Ocasio-Cortez asks if she can run a campaign funded entirely by corporate PACs, becoming a “100 percent lobbyist-funded” congressperson.  

A corporate PAC is a group that pushes money into politics based on the interests of a business. Your business (maybe it’s a law firm or a fossil fuel company) pools together money from employees and churns that into its own PAC.

Of course, it’s legally possible to have a campaign run solely by corporate PACs, but it’s often not plausible to run such a campaign. Corporate PACs can only donate $5,000 to a politician each cycle. Additionally, corporate PACs almost always give to incumbents (politicians who are already in office), not the sort of fresh politician campaign that is talking about.

The logic behind that move is simple, if you’re a corporation, you want to spend your money where it’s safer and you can get incremental gains. The Center for Responsive Politics notes that every single one of the top 50 politicians who received the most money from PACs was an incumbent.

There’s also a reason that all the presidential candidates have sworn off corporate PAC donations—they’re worthless in a large-scale campaign. There are even senators who have sworn off corporate PAC donations.

Instead, most money in politics that goes directly to candidates comes from individuals or PACs associated with other members of Congress—for example, all the major 2020 candidates have PACs that they use to pump money into the campaigns of lower-level politicians.

In her video though, moments later, Ocasio-Cortez says “I use my special interest dark money funded campaign to pay off folks that I need to pay off.”

That’s a lot of dirty words that make no sense.

Corporate PACs, which is what she was just talking about, aren’t dark money because they have to disclose their donors.

Dark money groups are organizations that aren’t required to disclose their donors. Usually, they are non-profits. Corporate PACs are not dark money groups. These nonprofits can put money into Super PACs, but that doesn’t seem to be what the congresswoman is talking about.

Anna Massoglia, a dark money researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics explained to the Daily Dot, “I cannot think of any examples of corporate PACs operating in compliance with federal campaign finance law that would be considered dark money. PACs operating at the federal level are generally required to disclose donors to the FEC and are only allowed to take money from individuals, PACs or party committees to the best of my knowledge.”

Astroturfing errors

Astroturfing is a catch-all term for when a shadow group tries to represent themselves in a shady manner, usually posing as a grassroots movement. For example, here in Washington, D.C., there was a group titled “Save Our Tips” that was actually just a front for restaurant owners who were trying not to pay their employees more.

Unsurprisingly, this happens a lot in politics and Ocasio-Cortez has been the subject of at least one astroturfing campaign. A group calling itself the “Job Creators Network” targeted her with billboards in New York City. But when she decided to tweet about it, she got her facts jumbled, just like in the congressional hearing, she was trying to put too many dirty words too close together.

This started when Andrew Perez, a reporter for Maplight, tweeted that the funding for the billboards looked a little below-the-level and mentioned astroturfing. Ocasio-Cortez ran with it, accusing a former Mitch McConnell staffer of running a Twitter bot army (which is a pretty common practice on both sides of the aisle). When an Atlantic reporter asked what she was talking about, she wrote “‘Astroturfing’ is the term for those kinds of bots and online activity.”

But Perez wasn’t talking about bot activity. He was talking about the billboards.

She later deleted the tweet. But there’s a big difference between a bot army and a billboard in New York City. Bot armies are absurdly cheap, you can buy one for about $100 if you have the know-how and time. That’s not where the money is going. 

More dark money, more problems

On March 8, Ocasio-Cortez bumbled again when tweeting about “dark money” and sort of proved the hypothesis that she didn’t know exactly what she was talking about in that viral video.

When a reporter tweeted about the “Stop the AOC PAC,” she tweeted “There’s already a dark-money operation aimed at me just 2 months into my job.”

Except that PACs aren’t dark money groups. As we explained earlier, dark money groups don’t have to disclose their donors— PACs do. Dark money is a dirty word in politics, but it’s not a catch-all. It’s a boogeymny. And Ocasio-Cortez was involved in a PAC, Justice Democrats, that performed similar actions to the STOP the AOC PAC she’s lamenting for targeting her. 

Not all bad guys are the same bad guys

On March 11, Ocasio-Cortez noticed that the pro-Jeb Bush PAC “Right to Rise” was hit with a massive fine for taking money from a Chinese corporation. She wrote: “the creepy org filing bogus ethics complaints against me just *actually* got hit with one of the biggest fines in FEC history.”

Except “Right to Rise” never filed an ethics complaint against her. There’s an individual who worked at both Right to Rise and the groups that filed the ethics complaints against her, but that doesn’t make them the same thing.

Ocasio-Cortez later clarified that it was the “same guy who worked at the org.” But that clarification tweet has only 515 retweets while her initial tweet has over 6,800.

Money in politics is a really complicated industry and Ocasio-Cortez is right that it can be a very good way for bad guys to enrich themselves by influencing elections with their wallets.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that she keeps getting these terms mixed up.

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Alex Thomas

Alex Thomas

Alex Thomas is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.