In the closing days of the Iowa campaign, Pete Buttigieg told crowds of supporters and skeptics at town halls across the state that it was critical to the party’s chances in November that voters nominate someone with experience outside of the Washington bubble. Or, as he told an audience in Indianola, someone who lived “within jogging distance of the nearest cornfield.”
But Buttigieg’s apparent history-making victory in the Iowa caucuses was still up in the air on Wednesday when he left the New Hampshire campaign trail for a high-dollar fundraiser in New York City, an event hosted by exactly the kind of Washington old-guard pillars that Buttigieg had criticized.
The fundraiser in Washington, billed as a “Foreign Policy Conversation in D.C.” on its invitation, was co-hosted by more than 50 of Buttigieg’s supporters and advisers, and included the current and former heads of lobbying firms, military contractors, and fossil-fuel interests—the same kind of figures whose contributions to the former mayor’s campaign have come under attack by his rivals.
Among the people initially announced as the event’s hosts: the former president of a big-data firm that has made tens of millions of dollars in contracts from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; a former ambassador who made a fortune off an oil deal with the Kurds that was possible, in part, because of his work crafting the Iraqi constitution; and a former lobbyist whose work included advocating for the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
With his newly minted status as the moderate frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Buttigieg is raking in money in new contributions from donors, according to the campaign, many of them eager to boost his chances against Sen. Bernie Sanders in next week’s New Hampshire primary.
“Pete Buttigieg’s website is currently getting the most traffic we have recorded on any day of this campaign,” Buttigieg communications director Lis Smith tweeted on Tuesday, adding that the campaign had also had its single best hour of fundraising since the launch of his long-shot bid last year.
But according to the invitation obtained by The Daily Beast, those contributions are joining the same pot as funds donated by the kind of swamp creatures that Buttigieg—and nearly all of his competitors—have criticized in the past.
One person announced as a co-host, Jacob Shapiro, is the the former president and chief scientist at data firm Giant Oak, the recipient of nearly $45 million in contracts with ICE over the past six years. Giant Oak, founded by former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief of Staff Gary Shiffman, scrapes data from social-media accounts and online on behalf of clients—including ICE—in order to vet and identify immigrants. Immigrant-rights group Mijente has listed Giant Oak alongside better-known companies like Palantir and Amazon as one of “the tech and data companies fueling deportations.”
In 2017, Shapiro, now a professor of politics at Princeton University, met with ICE officials to discuss Trump’s “extreme vetting” policy for immigration into the United States, and publicly defended the use of algorithms to vet immigrants despite concerns from other data scientists that such a program could be inaccurate and biased.
“There are many ways one could meet that statement of objectives, some of which would make the system fairer, more equitable, and faster for those seeking to immigrate,” Shapiro told the Associated Press at the time. “But some of which could be biased and unfair, as any algorithm can be.”
After contacted by The Daily Beast about Shapiro’s role as a co-host of the fundraiser, the Buttigieg campaign removed him from the list of co-hosts for the event—which he had not been planning to attend—and returned the money he had donated to the campaign this cycle.
“We learned about these contracts and his association today and immediately removed him from the host committee and are refunding his contribution,” a campaign spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “He was not scheduled to attend tonight’s event. We appreciate you bringing this to our attention.”
Shapiro, who was not a bundler for the campaign and whose past donations were generally small-dollar amounts, is not the only person billed as a co-host whose past work rubs up against Buttigieg’s platform, or that of his rivals for the Democratic nomination.
Another co-host, former diplomat Peter Galbraith, long an advocate for Kurdish independence as a U.S. diplomat, worked on behalf of Iraqi Kurds to retain control over oil in northern Iraq during the crafting of the nation’s post-invasion constitution. At the time, Galbraith’s position was publicly that of an unpaid volunteer with a long history of advocacy for the Kurdish people. What he did not publicly disclose at the time was that he was working on the new constitution that he stood to potentially benefit from—which he later did, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
When those interests were disclosed, Galbraith defended his investments in Kurdistan as “consistent with my political views.” Iraqi officials said the deal put the legitimacy of the constitution that Galbraith helped craft into question.
“The idea that an oil company was participating in the drafting of the Iraqi constitution leaves me speechless,” Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, another drafter, told The New York Times at the time, characterizing the deal as like giving Galbraith’s business partners “a representative in the room, drafting.”
Buttigieg has pledged not to take any contributions from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, or PACs.
Another co-host of the Washington event, Lionel Johnson, is a former lobbying executive for Citi and a foreign-policy adviser for the Buttigieg campaign. According to lobbying disclosures filed by the bank in the late 1990s, Johnson “sought passage” of Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and H.R. 10 in 1999, a pair of bills that largely repealed Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that separated investment banking from commercial banks. The repeal of Glass-Steagall helped pave the way for Citicorp to merge with Travelers Insurance to form Citigroup, and years later, partially contributed to the 2007 financial crisis by creating banking institutions that were “too big to fail.”
Buttigieg has faced criticism before about his campaign’s willingness to give co-host status to donors with professional associations that run counter to his progressive platform. In October, Buttigieg’s campaign dropped a fundraising co-host who had once fought the release of video showing the shooting death of a black teenager by Chicago police; in December, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) went after Buttigieg during a presidential debate for attending a fundraiser in the wine cave of a Napa Valley couple who had been accused of leveraging past political donations for perks and privileges, including an ambassadorship.
“I don’t spend time with millionaires and billionaires—I don’t meet behind closed doors with big-dollar donors,” Warren told Buttigieg at the time. “This ought to be an easy step. And here’s the problem: If you can’t stand up and take the steps that are relatively easy, can’t stand up to the wealthy and well-connected when it is relatively easy when you are a candidate, then how can the American people believe you will stand up to the wealthy and well-connected when you are president and it is really hard?”
Buttigieg’s campaign has responded to calls for increased transparency in its fundraising, opening events up to reporters, and releasing the list of “bundlers” who gather contributions from other donor as part of a pledge “to be the most transparent campaign of the cycle.”
But the campaign declined requests that it publicly delineate the specific tiers for campaign bundlers, name which of its bundlers are at which tier, or describe the corresponding perks associated with each bundler level.
“We are proud to be running a campaign that is powered by the support of more than 700,000 donors from across the country and the only promise any donor gets from Pete is that he will use their money to defeat Donald Trump,” Buttigieg spokesman Sean Savett told The Daily Beast when that information was requested last month. “Whether you can give $3 or $300, whether you are a Democrat, independent or Republican, if you are ready to defeat Donald Trump, we welcome you to our campaign.”
—with additional reporting by Hanna Trudo