One of Silicon Valley’s top investors has quietly dumped seven figures into Democratic super PACs over the past two years through a pair of dark money groups that have little documented activity beyond channeling money into federal elections.
Matt Cohler, a former Facebook executive and a partner at the venture capital firm Benchmark, is behind the pair of nonprofit groups, one of which has donated a total of more than $1 million this year alone to three leading Democratic political groups. The Pacific Environmental Coalition’s latest donation came last month, according to records released this week; it donated $500,000 to Senate Majority PAC, a powerhouse super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
Earlier this year, PEC also donated $300,000 to Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting former vice president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. And in February, the group chipped in $250,000 to VoteVets, the progressive vets group that was backing former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential bid at the time.
There’s little public information about the PEC. It doesn’t appear to have a website or social media presence. And it hasn’t existed long enough to file an annual financial report with the Internal Revenue Service. But according to incorporation records in California, Cohler is the group’s chief executive officer.
That relative lack of information about PEC’s activity caught the attention of the ethics watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. The group says it plans to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission detailing its suspicion that PEC and another Cohler-run dark money group ran afoul of laws barring donors from using “pass through” entities to mask the sources of their political contributions.
"This appears to be yet another example of shell corporations being used to funnel money to super PACs while hiding the true sources of the money,” Brendan Fischer, CLC’s director of federal reforms, told The Daily Beast in an email. “Voters have a right to know which wealthy special interests are spending big money to secretly influence our vote and our government."
Cohler, who didn’t respond to requests for comment on his involvement, was an executive at Facebook from 2005 to 2008, according to his LinkedIn page, before joining Benchmark. He sits on a host of corporate boards, and is widely considered one of Silicon Valley’s top investors.
His involvement in groups making these sizable political contributions, which has not been previously reported, shows how wealthy political donors can use nonprofits to obscure their identities, even as they seek to exert tremendous influence over political campaigns.
The PEC appears to be the second dark money group that Cohler has set up to make federal political contributions. The similarly named Pacific Atlantic Action Coalition donated $200,000 to Senate Majority PAC in July 2018, less than two months after it was formed, on May 21. That group’s incorporation records also list Cohler as its chief executive.
Unlike PEC, the Pacific Atlantic Action Coalition has been around long enough to file annual financial figures with the IRS. Its filing shows that the group received a single contribution during its first month in existence, a donation of $443,000 worth of securities. It doesn’t identify the donor, but that sum comprises the entirety of its income for the year.
PAAC says in that filing that its mission is “to educate the general public regarding issues of public policy and to promote and bring about advances in such areas of public policy... through education, advocacy, grantmaking and other permissible activities in furtherance of its exempt purpose.” Like PEC, the group doesn’t appear to have a public presence online.
PAAC also structured its fiscal year to end of June 30, 2018, meaning its initial filing only covered the first five weeks of its existence—and stopped short of the date of its contribution to Senate Majority PAC. Numerous requests to Cohler and the firm’s treasurer for its subsequent annual filing went unanswered.
That treasurer works for a tax and wealth advisory firm in Palo Alto employed by some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors and executives. Both PEC and PAAC have also filed documentation with state corporate regulators listing attorneys with the firm Arnold & Porter. That firm has offices in Palo Alto, but both of the attorneys listed in those corporate records are based at its Washington, D.C., office.