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Austin-Based Pro Sanders PAC Raises Questions

A pro-Bernie Sanders super PAC headed by an Austin businessman has raised more than $250,000, but it's unclear what the group is doing to help the Democratic presidential hopeful.

Bernie Sanders, 2016 Democratic candidate for president, speaks at a rally in Dallas on Sunday, July 19, 2015.

A man known for creating the controversial website BustedMugShots.com appeared to be feeling the Bern when he launched an Austin-based super PAC supposedly dedicated to electing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders president.

The “Feel The Bern” logo graces its website, www.feelbern.org, which describes the organization as "a group of big Bernie Sanders fans." 

But a review of Federal Election Commission reports and corporate filings — along with a written complaint from a Sanders supporter — shows the group hasn't raised huge sums, and it isn't clear how the money spent so far has helped Sanders' presidential bid. 

Known in federal filings as Socially Responsible Government, the organization is led by CEO Kyle Prall, an Austin businessman. Attempts to reach Prall or the super PAC were not successful. Emails sent to info@feelbern.org, listed as the official contact for the website, either bounced back with error messages or were not answered.

Curiously, Prall is also listed as the treasurer for a super PAC whose website appears dedicated to electing Sanders’ opponent, Hillary Clinton. Though the latest reports show that the HC4PRESIDENT super PAC raised less than $1,500 in the first quarter of 2016, the one dedicated to Sanders pulled in $261,000 over the same period. 

Seth Gunning, a Sanders fan who began looking into the PAC weeks ago, provided The Texas Tribune with a complaint he says he filed against Socially Responsible Government with the Federal Election Commission. 

Gunning argues in his complaint that Socially Responsible Government's spending suggests the PAC is more interested in raising money as an end in itself than bolstering Sanders' presidential campaign.

It takes the FEC several days to process formal complaints, so no information about Gunning’s letter, dated June 22, was immediately available from the agency. Anyone who believes a campaign finance violation has occurred can file a sworn complaint with the FEC.

A review of the PAC's filings show that of the almost $200,000 it has spent so far, about $23,000 went to Prall, most of it as "net pay." About a third of the PAC's money, more than $60,000, went to Facebook and Google for online ads.

The super PAC also spent $3,000 for meals and entertainment at a swanky Miami nightclub, records show, and more than $60,000 went to three companies incorporated in late January and early February. The companies provided marketing and advertising services, according to FEC reports.

Two of those companies — DMF Marketing Solutions, LLC, of Wyoming and NHT Productions, LLC, of Michigan — received a combined $30,645 and listed a Woodlands attorney as their "organizer." The attorney says he represented Prall in past lawsuits over his Bustedmugshots website.

In a phone interview, the attorney, Joseph Centrich, said when Prall told him he was setting up a super PAC, Centrich replied that he had no knowledge of how to create or operate one. Centrich did not want to discuss specifics about DMF Marketing or NHT Productions.

(Centrich also said he forwarded word of the Tribune's interest in speaking about the PAC to Prall, but added,  “I assume if he hasn’t contacted you, he doesn’t want to contact you.”)

More PAC money — $31,000 — went to a third recently created company called LCGM LLC, FEC records show. Johan Garcia of Florida is listed in Internet records as the company's webmaster, and Garcia was paid $3,300 from the super PAC for “online marketing services,” according to FEC records. He did not return phone calls and email messages. 

Gunning notes that the PAC's website promised to fund get-out-the-vote drives and voter transportation programs in various cities. In his complaint, he says there's nothing in the federal reports to indicate those things happened.

Gunning says he can pinpoint only $1,500 that clearly seemed to be spent on supporting Sanders: a $1,000 donation from the super PAC to the Democratic Party — apparently in an online donation to the Democratic National Committee — and a $500 donation to Vote Riders, a nonprofit aimed at helping people get the IDs needed for voting in various states.

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