Omar Siddiqui couldn’t make it to an August fundraiser in Beverly Hills for the Democratic Coalition Against Trump. But he ponied up the $2,000 ticket price after the group’s senior adviser, Scott Dworkin, sent him a personal invitation.
Months later, Siddiqui, the Democratic challenger to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), was surprised to discover his money—or three of every four dollars of it—had gone to the coffers of consultants and lawyers the group leaned on to fight a libel suit, rather than pushing back against the president.
When told by The Daily Beast how the group had spent his money, Siddiqui was, charitably speaking, not pleased.
“Being an attorney,” he said, “I intend to investigate this further and look forward to receiving a full explanation about the use of donations.”
The Democratic Coalition, one of the many new progressive-minded organizations to bloom in the age of anti-Trump fervor, brought in nearly half a million dollars last year. Its donors include Siddiqui, a pair of Hollywood television producers, a former Real Housewife of Miami, and a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. The vast majority of its funds, however, have come from people whose names don’t make it into Federal Election Commission disclosures: the small, “unitemized” donors who give $200 or less.
It’s what the group has done with its money—not how much it has brought in—that has raised eyebrows among other operatives.
The Democratic Coalition paid more than half of the money it raised last year to its employees or their consulting firms, according to Federal Election Commission records. Dworkin’s Bulldog Finance Group was the chief beneficiary, drawing more than $130,000 from The Democratic Coalition.
The breakdown in 2016, when the Democratic Coalition declared its goal was “making sure that Donald Trump never became President,” was even starker. That year, Dworkin and other staff members received more than 90 percent of all of the Democratic Coalition’s expenditures, either personally or through a consulting company, according to FEC records.
On top of those expenditures, the Democratic Coalition has also spent $127,500 in legal fees since late 2016. Those fees stem from a libel lawsuit brought by a North Dakota doctor who donated $2,700 to the Trump campaign. The Coalition dubbed him a “major benefactor of the Trump campaign” and accused him of ties to former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and terrorist elements in that country.
The case was settled last summer under undisclosed terms. But the Democratic Coalition never informed current or prospective donors that their contributions would help cover what have turned out to be six-figure legal expenses. “To ensure we could have as large an impact as possible, we reached an amicable agreement with Dr. Benaissa that includes language prohibiting any of us from speaking about the matter, other than to acknowledge its existence,” a spokesperson for the group said.
The apparent self-dealing and large legal expenditures have left some donors to the organization angry with what they see as a waste of money and energy. It’s also left Democratic operatives worried that money is being sent to organizations that are engaged largely in self-promotion at a time when resources are needed for midterm election contests and sustained advocacy against Trump.
“He is conning people into giving him small-dollar donations so he can pay himself and sustain an organization that gains him credibility,” said one top party operative, who agreed to speak candidly about the Democratic Coalition on condition of anonymity. “It’s a fucking abomination.”
Officials at The Democratic Coalition insist that they have been upfront about their expenses. They also say that campaigns they are running rely on staff overhead and don’t lend themselves to a the FEC’s periodic disclosure requirements of political activity.
“We've done a ton of work online—much more of it organic social media than paid social media—so most of it hasn’t been the kind of things that get itemized in a FEC report. Instead, they’re expenses paid directly out of consulting fees,” said Chuck Westover, a senior adviser to the Coalition. “The whole picture isn’t in there.”
“Our work has had and continues to have a real impact,” Westover added, “so it’s not a huge surprise that we have attracted some detractors.”
There are no laws governing how much of a PAC’s resources must be devoted to employee compensation or reportable “independent expenditures.” The only check on how most groups spend their money is donors themselves, and most don’t bother, or don’t know how, to explore the matter before donating small, unitemized sums. Last year the FEC unanimously backed recommendations to Congress for new laws governing groups that exist solely to raise money and pay their own executives, but no such legislation has even been considered.
Largely free to operate how they please, groups on the left and right have used dramatic fundraising appeals promising huge political operations to solicit lots of small-dollar contributions (and some larger ones). But little in the way of policy advocacy or political operations ever takes place. Campaign finance experts have a term for this.
“We saw the rise of ‘scam PACs’ during the Obama years, where grifters would tap into anti-Obama sentiment to raise mostly small-dollar donations from grassroots conservatives, and then pay themselves consulting fees rather than use the money to support candidates or causes,” Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform programs at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said in an email. “The Democratic Coalition seems to be using a similar playbook, only here they are tapping into anti-Trump sentiment.”
Whether Dworkin is running the equivalent of a “scam PAC” depends on who you ask. His reputation in progressive circles is decidedly mixed. He was a relatively unknown consultant for years, taking on clients outside the Democratic mainstream. Former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) hired him for fundraising help on his 2006 run. The Florida Democrat ultimately didn’t need the help after building up a massive community of small dollar donors online. But he recalled Dworkin as “competent.”
“Unlike a lot of people in politics he actually focused on his responsibilities rather than pontificating,” Grayson told The Daily Beast. “And that was a good thing. It was worthwhile.”
Others have less generous things to say. Fellow Democratic consultants told The Daily Beast that Dworkin had a reputation for running up massive administrative costs and paying himself. They see his current venture as an extension of that crass opportunism.
“He is nowhere near a movement leader. He is a political operative who, in my opinion, targets first-time candidates who often don’t know what they don’t know. And he has a trail of frustrated clients and coworkers,” said Nomiki Konst, an operative turned investigative reporter for The Young Turks, who said she once worked with Dworkin.
“The majority of political campaign consultants are in it for the money and not always for the win. But Scott Dworkin is in his own class.”
Dworkin defended himself against those charges in an email to The Daily Beast. “I don’t call myself a leader of any movement,” he wrote. “I say I help lead The Resistance. It’s a group effort and there are too many moving pieces for there to be only one leader.”
“In regards to candidates,” he said, “I was one of the few people in Washington willing to give a shot to the underdog. To even listen to them. And I’m glad I did. Sometimes no one else would.”
One thing Dworkin’s foes and boosters do agree on is that he has an incredible capacity to pitch—whether it be a cause or himself.
“It is all flash and all substance with him,” is how one prominent Democratic fundraiser put it. “But he’s a great talker and he is great in meetings.”
The Democratic Coalition certainly has a reputation that exceeds its size or budget. The group, and Dworkin himself, are hyperactive on Twitter, crafting lenthy threads of tweets attempting to draw ties between Trump and the Russian government, or implicate other high-ranking Republicans. Those tweets are frequently punctuated with exclamations designed to draw the attention of journalists and news consumers—Exclusive! Breaking!—but occasionally report information that originated in the mainstream political press hours earlier. Dworkin is now raising money for a new project: an eponymous podcast. He’s brought in just under $15,000 of his $50,000 goal on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, where his page declares that he and the Democratic Coalition “have worked to lead the Resistance.”
Dworkin’s Twitter bio is a case study in overstatement too, his detractors say. On it, he lists himself as an “Obama Alum.” Few people in the prior administration remember him though. That’s because Dworkin didn’t serve in the administration, per se. He was the deputy director of engagement to the 2012 Democratic convention. Steve Kerrigan, the CEO of the convention committee and now a Massachusetts congressional candidate, recalled Dworkin as “a great addition to our team.”
By that point, Dworkin had begun to establish himself in Democratic circles. During the 2010 election cycle, his firm, Bulldog Finance Group, signed a number of congressional candidates and began bringing in sizable consulting fees. FEC records show federal PACs and candidate committees paid Bulldog more than $875,000 from 2009 through 2016.
Dworkin’s consulting business hit a bit of a lull last year, when his firm reported just one federal client beyond the Democratic Coalition: California House hopeful Wendy Carrillo. Instead, he has focused on the Coalition, where his efforts have involved both a robust, often conspiratorial, stream of online postings—including allegations of treason against the president—as well as a stream of legal complaints filed against high-profile Republicans.
What the group hasn’t done much of is overt politicking of the kind generally associated with political action committees. It reported just $2,350 in independent political expenditures last year, to pay for two billboards promoting the candidacy of Sen. Doug Jones, the Democrat who scored an upset victory in December’s U.S. Senate special election in Alabama. Billboards are widely considered a waste of political money.
Despite the questionable use of its funds, donors don’t seem to be particularly concerned or even all that attentive. One relatively big giver to The Democratic Coalition first said he could not recall actually writing his four-figure check to the group. But when told that he had, in fact, done so, he responded: “I do hope they’ve done something good with our money.” He spoke on condition of anonymity out of embarrassment for not remembering donating his money.
The day after talking to The Daily Beast, the donor received an email from The Democratic Coalition asking for money for their next project: A billboard outside of Rep. Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) district office in Visalia accusing the congressman of fabricating memos for Donald Trump.