This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.
Cary Lee Peterson — a self-described “congressional lobbyist and election campaign guru” who pleaded not guilty to securities fraud charges last month after the FBI arrested him in March — was released from federal custody on June 10 after posting a $200,000 secured bond.
Federal authorities released Peterson into the custody of his mother, who lives in Arizona. Court records show Peterson is currently subject to electronic monitoring and a daily curfew. Furthermore, Peterson was required to forfeit his passport — he regularly traveled abroad — and to resolve other, unrelated warrants for his arrest.
But Peterson first had other business. Within days of his release, he registered two new political groups with the Federal Election Commission: a political action committee called the Alliance Against Disabled Inmate Abuse and a super PAC called Democrats Socially United, which is backing Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to its nascent website, Democrats-United.org.
By law, super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited sums of money and spend that cash to advocate for or against political candidates. They may also operate without candidates’ permission and face few regulations on how they spend their funds. These factors have made super PACs attractive vehicles for professional political operatives — as well as less ideologically driven individuals hoping to profit off of popular candidates.
Peterson, who did not respond to questions related to this story, launched Ready for Bernie Sanders 2016 last year, which he later renamed Bet on Bernie. He settled on a third name — Americans Socially United — after regulators made him remove references to Sanders, per federal rules that allow committees to use a candidate’s name only if authorized by the candidate.
Americans Socially United’s most notable donor was actor Craig, who gave the super PAC $47,300 last July after donating the legal maximum of $2,700 to Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Craig, last year, told the Center for Public Integrity that he made the contribution in “in good faith” to support Sanders’ candidacy, apparently unaware of Peterson’s checkered past.
Then — and still today — Peterson has two warrants out for his arrest in Arizona, stemming from his failure to appear in court for misdemeanor cases against him. Furthermore, he was twice evicted from apartments in Texas. And two Texas courts ordered one of Peterson’s companies to pay creditors more than $200,000 for breaches of contract earlier this decade.
One of those creditors is Dow Jones & Co., which was issued a judgment of nearly $170,000 after Peterson’s company ECCO2 Corp. failed to pay for advertisements it took out in the Wall Street Journal.
Last year, Peterson told the Center for Public Integrity that his past troubles were irrelevant to his current endeavors.
“You don’t need to look back on my past,” Peterson said. “I’m going out there trying to make a difference.”
In an email Monday, Peterson told the Center for Public Integrity to “cease and desist all other activities prior to talking with me.”
He did not respond to numerous phone and email follow ups.
To this day, it’s unclear how Peterson’s Americans Socially United super PAC spent the money it raised.
Its only real presence was online, where it operated several social media accounts and a bare-bones website that was reachable via several addresses, including BetonBernie.com, BetonBernie2016.com, PledgeSanders2016.com and SociallyUnited.org.
Americans Socially United collected funds from an unknown number of donors — including some who told the Center for Public Integrity they came across the super PAC’s website by mistake and gave money to the super PAC while believing they were donating to Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Americans Socially United also attracted attention from Sanders’ presidential campaign, which sent it a pair of cease-and-desist letters last year. In them, Sanders campaign lawyer Brad Deutsch argued that the group’s activities were “illegal” and “causing harmful confusion for supporters of Senator Sanders’ campaign.”
The only official campaign finance report Americans Socially United filed last year was riddled with abnormalities. And despite the FEC’s threats of “civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action,” the super PAC still has not filed a mandatory campaign finance report that was due in January.
Americans Socially United is just one of eight political groups Peterson registered with the FEC last year.
He also created groups called the American Friends for Micronesia, the Congressional Committee on Cuban Affairs, the Congressional Committee on Eurasian Affairs, the Congressional Committee on Law Enforcement and Public Safety, the Congressional Task Force on Human Trafficking, the Every Vote Counts Restoring America Super PAC and the Independent National Committee.
Despite their names, none are officially affiliated with Congress. And none have filed mandatory campaign finance disclosures.
Peterson also presents himself as associated with a law firm called Robert Peterson and Fields Associates, which offers services for political candidates, international affairs and public relations. The company is headquartered in Beverly Hills, California, at an address provided through a firm that specializes in virtual office space.
Terry R. Fields, a California lawyer whose name is connected with Robert Peterson and Fields Associates in some listings, told the Center for Public Integrity his name was being used by Peterson without his “consent, permission or involvement” and that he has “never, in any way, been his partner or his associate.”
Now, both the U.S. Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission have cases pending against Peterson related to business dealings he undertook in 2012 and 2013 while running a penny-stock company called RVPlus Inc.
According to one of the government’s complaints against him, Peterson “defrauded investors by issuing false filings and press releases touting its purportedly lucrative — but wholly fictitious — business deals.”
At the time, Peterson claimed his company had secured nearly $2 billion worth of deals with foreign governments for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, including Haiti, Liberia and ministry of the environment for Katsina State in Nigeria.
In May, he pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against him by the Department of Justice in federal court in New Jersey.
U.S. officials aren’t the only ones interested in Peterson.
The Center for Public Integrity has also learned that law enforcement officials are investigating Peterson in the Pacific island nation of Micronesia, where he was trying to establish a medical marijuana program prior to his arrest in March.