Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) spends more of her campaign funds on security than nearly every other member of Congress—she’s underwritten well over $560,000 for her protection since late 2021—but what’s more unusual than how much she spends is who she spends it on.
According to federal campaign finance filings, Sinema’s campaign committees have paid a combined $307,000 in security expenses to an Arizona-registered entity called TOA Group LLC. And official documents show that TOA Group LLC has just one officer: Vrindivan Gabbard Bellord, best known as the sister of and occasional spokesperson for Tulsi Gabbard.
Gabbard, the former Democratic congresswoman and presidential candidate turned right-wing political figure, has long had a friendly relationship with Sinema. And Gabbard’s sister, Bellord, also appears to be quite close to the senator.
Since fall 2021, Bellord has been employed as the “security director” in Sinema’s Senate office, a role that has paid her over $50,000, according to Senate records. Bellord has also apparently been the exclusive security provider to Sinema’s campaign. She appears to have no other clients aside from the Arizona senator.
Beyond paying Bellord’s salary, Sinema’s campaign committee and personal PAC have spent over $240,000 on other security-related expenses—airfare, lodging, meals, and other benefits for “security detail,” presumably meaning Bellord.
In 2022, Sinema’s campaigns spent over $56,000 for security detail lodging at Marriott hotels alone. Notably, there are also two separate charges totaling over $100,000 for “security detail vehicle.”
Bellord may have also benefited from Sinema campaign expenses that were not listed as specifically security-related. In February 2022, Sinema’s personal PAC paid $95 to a “fat bike” tour company in Park City, Utah. Days before, Bellord posted a photo to Instagram showing two bikes—with fat wheels—in snowy mountain surroundings. In response to a comment from Gabbard, Bellord said, “thanks to our friend,” with a winky-face emoji. (Sinema liked the post.)
The connection between Sinema and Bellord is far from coincidental. Sinema and Gabbard first became friends when both arrived in the U.S. House as freshmen in 2013. During Gabbard’s time in Washington, Bellord reportedly lived with her sister—and likely got to know Sinema there. According to property records, Bellord’s primary residence now is in Texas.
As a former U.S. marshal—and the de facto driver and body woman for Gabbard’s 2020 presidential campaign—Bellord surely has applicable security expertise.
But the previously unreported arrangement between Sinema and Bellord raises several ethics concerns, according to campaign finance law experts. These experts told The Daily Beast that Sinema has an obligation to explain the relationship further. The newly independent Arizona senator has not announced whether she will run for re-election in 2024, but she has already drawn a challenger in Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ).
Since 2017, the Federal Election Commission has permitted candidates to spend campaign money for their personal security. Saurav Ghosh, a former campaign finance attorney now at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said security is “not the craziest thing for a campaign to spend money on.”
But Ghosh remarked the $300,000-plus sum that Bellord received from Sinema was “eye-opening” and that the fact that the senator is her only apparent client is “one of the biggest red flags.”
That Bellord is being paid with campaign funds for security while drawing a taxpayer-funded salary for the same kind of work is “exceptionally rare,” said Brendan Fischer, executive director of the watchdog group Documented.
Fischer expressed surprise that Sinema wasn’t paying Bellord entirely with campaign funds, while saving her limited, taxpayer-funded official Senate budget to hire an additional legislative or press staff member.
That Sinema and Bellord have pre-existing personal connections adds to the need for transparency, the experts said—particularly because there are so many charges for expenses that Fischer describes as “fringe benefits.”
“It’s interesting from the perspective of optics, more than legality,” Ghosh said. He added that Bellord would not be subject to the FEC’s rule that campaign funds cannot enrich a candidate’s relatives, “but it’s always questionable whether someone is providing real, legitimate security services, or whether this is a sweetheart deal. It’s usually somewhere in the middle.”
“Using both campaign and taxpayer funds to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a close friend’s sister—as well as a number of fringe benefits—warrants some degree of an explanation,” Fischer said.
A spokesperson for Sinema did not respond to requests for comment, which included a list of questions about the nature and extent of Bellord’s security duties, her compensation structure, and the official policy for covering Bellord’s expenses.
Sinema, of course, is hardly the only member of Congress to spend lavishly on security in a moment when lawmakers are facing historic rates of violent threats. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who ran two high-profile campaigns in two years, sank some $1.5 million into security; other top spenders include Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Jon Ossoff (D-GA), and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO). Sinema is not an outlier in Arizona: her colleague, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), spent $562,000 on security over the last two years.
But Sinema appears to diverge significantly from some colleagues in their organization of security. Kelly’s campaign spending reports, for instance, show various payments of several hundred dollars, or a few thousand dollars, for “security” to nearly a dozen people, several of whom appear to be former law enforcement officers. There are no payments for meals, lodging, or other personal expenses for “security detail.”
It’s unclear how close Sinema and Gabbard are today, but they have considerable history. The two became quick allies after their elections to Congress in 2012. From 2013 to 2014, they shared a joint fundraising committee. A lengthy internal guide to staffing Sinema, obtained and reported on by The Daily Beast last year, listed her five closest friends in Congress. Gabbard was one of them.
News articles from Gabbard’s time in Congress, and her presidential campaign, detailed her sister’s pivotal role in her political life. When Gabbard’s 2020 campaign manager and consulting firm cut ties with the candidate before she even launched, Gabbard was “leaning on her sister, Vrindavan, to fill the void,” Politico reported at the time.
A New York magazine profile of Gabbard from the 2020 campaign trail portrayed Bellord as a key member of her brain trust—not to mention the campaign driver and one of two members of a “traveling staff” that consisted of her and her brother-in-law. During debates, Bellord lobbed attacks at fellow primary contenders during debates—and took over the campaign Twitter account—echoing her sister’s fiery anti-establishment politics all the while.
As Gabbard continued to distance herself from the Democratic Party after her presidential run and embrace the right, she publicly defended Sinema, who was facing criticism within the party for her stance supporting the Senate filibuster rule and opposing changes to the U.S. tax code that her colleagues had pushed for. Often, that criticism was public and in the senator’s face.
“What I've told her directly and personally is hold your ground and put the American people first,” Gabbard said on Fox News in October 2021, when asked by a host about Sinema being “on the outs with the elite.”
The business relationship between Sinema and Bellord appears to have begun in October 2021—the same month that angry activists followed the senator into a bathroom at Arizona State University and, separately, confronted her on an airplane and in the airport.
At the end of the month, Bellord began receiving a paycheck from Sinema’s Senate office for her duties as “security director.” In December, Bellord filed paperwork in Arizona to form TOA Group, listing as its address an office park outside Tucson used by several other LLCs.
Beginning in 2022, Sinema’s campaign, as well as her personal Getting Stuff Done PAC, began paying TOA Group for “security detail” and spending on various security-related expenses. These ranged from airline tickets and hotel rooms to in-flight WiFi to meals at a variety of restaurants.
The expenses, cataloged in FEC reports, indicate the extent of Bellord’s travel with Sinema. In addition to the $56,000 Sinema’s campaigns spent on security detail lodging at Marriott, over $35,000 was spent for security detail airfares.
Watchdogs say that, because using campaign funds to pay for security is broadly allowed, candidates enjoy wide latitude in their spending. Typically, the basic threshold for a permissible campaign expense is whether it would not be required if the candidate were not running for or holding public office.
Given that candidates may want and need security because of their public-facing roles—and do not require any less protection when they travel or conduct other business—security spending can balloon quickly, often with little scrutiny into the nature of the expenses.
But watchdogs said that does not mean candidates should not have to explain how they are stewarding donors’ money. In Sinema’s case, ascertaining the fairness of the arrangement is especially hard. The fact that Bellord appears to have only one client, said Ghosh, makes it difficult to ascertain whether her compensation rates are consistent, or whether she has as many expenses covered by other employers.
Fischer, with the watchdog group Documented, said that candidates should be able to spend campaign funds to stay safe in dangerous times, but that “there are a few things about these particular payments that are unique.”
“No one’s questioning the value of hiring security,” he said, “but Sinema should be able to tell her constituents why so much money is being paid to this particular person and for these particular expenditures.”