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No ‘Walls of Separation’ in Knoxville Office Run by AOC Chief of Staff Chakrabarti

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., right, and her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, left, walk back together after joining other members of the freshman class of Congress for a group photo on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
MICHAEL PATRICK LEAHY

There were no “walls of separation” in the 3,500 square feet of office space in Knoxville, Tennessee that in 2017 and 2018 housed two political action committees (PACs), two private consulting firms, and at least 12 congressional campaigns committees, all controlled or run by Saikat Chakrabarti, who now serves as freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) chief of staff.

A source familiar with the building told Breitbart News that Brand New Campaign LLC, a private company formed in Delaware on February 13, 2017 that was apparently controlled by Chakrabarti, leased the second and third floors of the building located at 714 S. Gay Street in downtown Knoxville from the spring of 2017 until March 2018.

The second floor “is entirely open space, with no walls at all,” while the third floor is “mostly open space with a few enclosed offices,” a source in Knoxville, Tennessee, who is familiar with the space told Breitbart News.

The other entities controlled or run by Chakrabarti at the time that were housed at 714 S. Gay St. during the period of occupancy of Brand New Campaign LLC included:

Some of the congressional campaigns subsequently filed amendments to their statement of organization listing different addresses for their offices.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, however, did not file an amended statement of organization with the FEC changing the address of her campaign headquarters from 714 S. Gay Street, Knoxville, Tennessee to a location in New York until November 20, 2018, two weeks after she won the general election to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, and more than six months after the Brand New Campaign LLC lease of the Knoxville office space ended.

All told, at least 16 different organizations, all controlled or managed by Chakrabarti and, in the case of two of those organizations–her own campaign beginning in May 2017 and Justice Democrats beginning in February 2018, by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez– listed the 714. S. Gay Street location as their headquarters during the 2017 to 2018 time frame of Brand New Campaign LLC’s occupancy of the office space there.

Coordination between PACs and congressional campaigns is a violation of election law, and in the rare circumstances where PACs and congressional campaigns have been known to share office space, FEC regulations require firewalls–“walls of separation” to help ensure that illegal coordination does not occur.

But sources in Knoxville who visited the office while it was occupied by Chakrabarti and his associates among the 16 or more entities housed there that he controlled or managed say that the physical layout of the space gave the impression that it housed a single, integrated entity.

Breitbart News has obtained a brochure with the real estate listing for the space, which includes a picture of both of the floors in the space that was leased by Chakrabarti and Corbin Trent, at the time a resident of Morristown, Tennessee, and the Tennessee coordinator for the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign who is now Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director, on behalf of one of the many entities that occupied it.

For a brief period beginning in late 2012 and continuing into at least the summer of 2013, Trent owned and operated a food truck in Morristown, CrazyGoodBurgers, which claimed to sell some of the most delicious gourmet hamburgers around. A kitchen fire of unknown origin badly damaged the food truck in 2013, and Trent launched a GoFundMe page to repair the truck. According to that page, he raised a little over $8,000, but CrazyGoodBurgers apparently never re-opened. According to his restaurant bio, Trent is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, where annual tuition runs about $30,000 per year.

Trent was paid by both the Justice Democrats PAC and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez congressional campaign from August 2018 to November 2018, the Free Beacon reported.

Sources tell Breitbart News that Chakrabarti and Trent made numerous visits to potential headquarters around Knoxville in the spring of 2017 before settling on the 714 S. Gay Street location.

The lease between Brand New Campaign LLC and David Dewhirst, a private individual who owned the building in early 2017 and also serves as the principal owner and CEO of Dewhirst Properties, was signed some time between March 1, 2017 and May 1, 2017, at which time Brand New Campaign LLC initiated its occupancy.

Sources tell Breitbart News that immediately upon beginning its occupancy of the office space at 714 S. Gay Street, Brand New Campaign LLC, Brand New Congress LLC, Brand New Congress the PAC, and Justice Democrats, the PAC began bringing in potential congressional candidates for auditions.

The Justice Democrats PAC wrote in a message posted on the group’s “Fresh Desk” on May 8, 2018 about the strategy and tactics behind these open casting calls for congressional candidates:

[M]any of the founding members of Justice Democrats also helped start Brand New Congress in April of 2016. At that time, the goal was not just to endorse existing candidates who have campaigns. Our goal with Brand New Congress was to recruit candidates who were not thinking about running already and to actually fully run all of their campaigns as if it was one big presidential race. This was right after the Bernie campaign, so this was our thought for how to recreate that Bernie movement in a giant 400-candidate national race.

This would let us have all kinds of efficiencies that come with a big national race and also, we believed, was one way we could create a national movement around taking over Congress. It would also, we believed, let us recruit different kinds of candidates who may not have had a lot of experience running campaigns but who believed in this big vision to change our country.

“The ONLY way to do work for multiple candidates legally at this scale is to create an LLC and act as a vendor,” the Justice Democrats memo continued:

For that reason, we created Brand New Congress, LLC. To keep things simple, we put all our staff in that LLC and had it act as the vendor for both the PAC and all the candidates. We had in our operating agreement that the goal of the LLC was not to make a profit, and as such, we made our prices as low as possible while still satisfying the FEC’s requirement that we are charging something reasonable because, again, if we weren’t we would essentially be doing heavily discounted work for candidates and that is illegal and immoral since fighting dark money is literally what we want to do. To try to make this as clean as possible, we not only had the language in our operating agreement about the LLC’s purpose, but we also made sure that Saikat Chakrabarti was the only controlling member of the LLC, and that he took no salary (either from the LLC, from Justice Democrats, or from Brand New Congress the PAC). Saikat is lucky to have a small side business that generates him enough income that he is able to do all of this work as a volunteer.

Ballotpedia described the leadership history of Justice Democrats as follows:

As of February 2018, the board of Justice Democrats consisted of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Saikat Chakrabarti.

In May 2017, the following individuals held leadership positions with the group:

  • Cenk Uygur, Co-founder
  • Kyle Kulinski, Co-founder
  • Zack Exley, Co-founder
  • Saikat Chakrabarti, Co-founder
  • David Koller, Treasurer

Cenk Uygur and David Koller resigned from Justice Democrats in December 2017 after it was learned that both had authored blogposts in the early 2000s that contained language the organization deemed sexist or degrading to women. Kyle Kulinski subsequently also resigned from the Justice Democrats’ board due to his disagreement with how the departure of Uygur was handled by the group.

The Justice Democrats Political Action Committee filed its statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission on January 9, 2017, and listed 6230 Wilshire Blvd #140 Los Angeles,CA as headquarters, with David Koller of that same address as treasurer. In an amended statement of organization filed with the FEC on December 22, 2017, it listed its headquarters as P.O. Box 914, Knoxville, Tennessee. Tara Reilly, whose address was listed as 714 South Gay St. , Knoxville, Tennessee, was the treasurer. In its most recent amended statement of organization filed with the FEC on September 12, 2018, the headquarters was listed as P.O Box 910, Knoxville, Tennessee, and the treasurer was listed as Alexandra Rojas of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Once approved, the paperwork for each candidacy was created, listing 714 S. Gay St. as the congressional campaign’s headquarters.

On August 10, 2017, a Knoxville based firm called Radius Properties LLC purchased the building at 714. S. Gay Street from David Dewhirst for $840,000,  at which time the Brand New Campaign LLC lease with Dewhirst was transferred to Radius Properties LLC.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported last week that at the time of this property transfer, the responsible party for the payment of the lease was changed from Brand New Campaign LLC to Justice Democrats, the PAC.

Federal Election Commission records show that Justice Democrats paid Radius Properties LLC a total of $14,125 between September 2017 and February 2018: $3,500 on September 1, 2017, $3,675 on December 17, 2017, $3,500 on January 1, 2018, and $3,500 on February 1, 2018.

There is no record in FEC filings of any other expenditure in the category of “rent” for Justice Democrats between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2018.

Sources familiar with Knoxville real estate activities tell Breitbart News that payments due for the months of October in the amount of $3,500 and November in the amount of $3,500 were made to the landlord, Radius Properties LLC by Brand New Campaign LLC, and not Justice Democrats.

If this turns out to be true, it opens up an entire new line of inquiry concerning the potential coordination between the PACs, consulting firms, and congressional campaigns controlled by Chakrabarti.

One purpose of FEC reporting requirements for PACs and federal political campaigns is to ensure transparency of expenditures made by these entitities.

The fact that the alleged payment of the rent by Brand New Campaign LLC in October and November 2017 at a time when the lease had apparently been transferred to Justice Democrats, the PAC, was not reported in FEC filings brings up this natural question:

What other operating expenditures of Justice Democrats were paid for by Brand New Campaign LLC or Brand New Congress LLC and not reported to the FEC?

During the 2018 campaign cycle, the 12 congressional campaign committees which were headquartered at the 3,500 square feet of leased space at 714 S. Gay Street paid Brand New Congress LLC, which listed its address as 714 S. Gay Street in Knoxville, Tennessee in FEC filings, a little more than $160,000 for “strategic consulting services.”

As other news outlets have reported extensively and as a recent complaint filed with the FEC alleges, during the time period from the formation of the Brand New Congress PAC in April 2016 to December 31, 2018, the private consulting entities controlled by Chakrabarti– Brand New Campaign LLC and Brand New Congress LLC — were paid more than $1 million in “strategic consulting fees” from the two PACs he controlled–Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, the PAC–and the at least 12 congressional campaigns to which his consulting entity Brand New Congress LLC provided “strategic consulting services.”

Brand New Congress, the PAC, filed its statement of organization with the FEC on April 5, 2016, and listed its headquarters as PO Box 416, Crane Missouri, with Zack Exley of the same address as its treasurer.

It made its first expenditure to Brand New Campaign LLC, whose address was simply listed as New York, New York, 10114, in the amount of $10,000 on May 17, 2016 for “strategic consulting.” All told, Brand New Congress, the PAC, paid Brand New Campaign LLC $200,000 between May 17, 2016 and December 31, 2016 for “strategic consulting,” according to FEC reports.

Total receipts of Brand New Congress, the PAC, for 2016 were just over $252,000, and total expenditures were $220,000–$200,000 of which went to Brand New Campaign LLC.

Whatever form of corporate organization Brand New Campaign LLC had in 2016, it had a new one in 2017.

Brand New Campaign LLC was formed as a Delaware corporation on February 13, 2017 and listed its address as 109 E. Main Street, Morristown, Tennessee. At its formation, the company had three members, according to documents filed with the Delaware Secretary of State, presumably two of whom were Chakrabarti and Corbin Trent. According to the Delaware Secretary of State’s website, the company has been inactive since August 8, 2018.

Brand New Congress, the PAC, made no further payments to Brand New Campaign LLC after December 31, 2016.

But on January 7, 2017 Brand New Congress, the PAC, made its first payment in the amount of $20,000 for “strategic consulting” to Brand New Congress LLC, which listed its address as Knoxville, Tennessee, according to FEC records.

On May 10, 2017 Brand New Congress, the PAC, filed an amended statement of organization with the FEC in which it still listed its headquarters as Crane, Missouri, but now listed Nasim Thompson of 714 S. Gay Street, Knoxville, TN as its treasurer.

All told for the calendar year 2017, Brand New Congress, the PAC, paid Brand New Congress LLC more than $247,000 in “strategic consulting fees, and nothing in 2018, according to FEC records. It also paid Riley Roberts, a resident of Arizona reportedly said to be the boyfriend of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez $6,000 for “marketing consulting” in August and September 2017.

The Washington Examiner reported:

Brand New Congress PAC transferred another $240,000 to Brand New Congress LLC, also for “strategic consulting.” Another PAC co-founded by Chakrabarti that year, Justice Democrats, transferred an additional $605,000 to Brand New Congress LLC in 2017.

Brand New Congress LLC does not appear to be registered in any state, according to state government records available online. It is unclear where or when it was incorporated.

Adav Noti, the senior director of the Campaign Legal Center and a former FEC lawyer, said the arrangement was highly unusual and seemed intended to obscure the destination of the funds.

“None of that makes any sense,” said Noti. “I can’t even begin to disentangle that. They’re either confused or they’re trying to conceal something.”

According to published reports, as of January 2019 Chakrabarti is no longer affiliated with Justice Democrats or Brand New Congress, the PAC.

Breitbart News contacted both Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Mr. Chakrabarti for comment but received no response.

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