Facing its biggest challenge of the year, Bernie Sanders’ underdog Democratic presidential campaign filed suit against the party on Friday. His top aides accused party leaders of attempting to sabotage the socialist insurgent's campaign after a breach of sensitive voter information that led Sanders to fire his national data director.
By early Saturday morning, the Democratic National Committee restored access to data the Sanders campaign wanted but not before a withering war of words involving party officials and the campaigns of both Sanders and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Each side in the fight said the other had capitulated.
"The Sanders campaign has now complied with the DNC's request, said Democratic chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a statement. "We are extremely pleased that the DNC has reversed its outrageous decision," said Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver.
The grudging settlement of the dispute came after a day of recriminations. In an appearance on Bloomberg Politics With All Due Respect, Tad Devine, a long time Democratic strategist and top adviser to Sanders, accused the Democratic National Committee of "grinding our campaign to a halt" by denying access to voter files until an investigation of the breach can be completed. He said the penalty is "like giving somebody 20 years in jail for jaywalking."
The Sanders campaign admitted that some of its staffers exploited a temporary glitch in the DNC voter database earlier this week to access lists created by Clinton's campaign. Sanders’s campaign fired national data director Josh Uretsky while the DNC blocked the senator’s organization from further access to its information.
The Sanders' complaint, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. on Friday evening, sues the DNC for breach of contract, blames the DNC for negligence in the data breach and seeks damages for lost fundraising. The campaign, in a statement, said it will seek an injunction ordering the DNC to restore its access to voter file data immediately.
"The financial damage caused by the loss of donations is estimated to be approximately $600,000.00 per day,'' Sanders' lawyers told the court. "However the damage to the Campaign’s political viability, as a result ofbeing unable to communicate with constituents and voters, is far more severe, and incapable of measurement.''
In a press call later, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook accused the Sanders campaign of having "misrepresented" the seriousness of the incident, which he said "may have been a violation of the law."
"This was a very egregious breach," Mook added. "Our data was stolen."
But several hours later, the Clinton campaign took a more conciliatory tone in a statement expressing the hope that the court will rule in favor of Sanders' injunction "and that the Sanders campaign has access to their voter files right away."
Devine's appearance and the lawsuit followed a fiery news conference held in front of a Washington row house serving as Sanders’ headquarters by campaign manager Jeff Weaver. He cast his candidate as the target of the Democratic establishment and the party's decision to withhold its data as an attack on the "heart and soul of our grassroots campaign."
“The Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign,” Weaver said, adding that “it looks like they are trying to help the Clinton campaign.”
Sanders' reiterated that argument in his lawsuit. "Voter data is vital to fundraising and voter identification efforts for all presidential candidates," the complaint asserted, stating that the Sanders campaign raised more than $2.4 million in a 48-hour period this week by relying on the data.
The moment could provide a boost to Sanders, who has stagnated in the polls as Clinton has bolstered her lead in the polls after delivering solid debate performances and surviving a round of questioning from U.S. House Republicans over the attack at the country’s embassy in Libya.
But there’s risk, too: An audit showed Sanders’ campaign repeatedly accessed sensitive voter information belonging to the Clinton campaign, threatening Sanders’ attempt to commandeer the moral and ethical high ground in the race.
Casting Sanders as the victim, Weaver suggested that it was excessive punishment for what he described as a minor infraction by “young people” who made “misjudgments.”
"The DNC is clearly acting in a heavy-handed way, in an unprecedented way," Weaver said. "I would like to see another instance where a presidential campaign had their data withheld—their own data withheld under similar circumstances."
Weaver’s tactic was sure to embolden Sanders’ supporters, who already have accused the DNC of tilting the process to help Clinton, the front-runner for her party’s nomination. Weaver referenced one of the main tenets of that argument during the news conference—a belief that the DNC cut back the number of debates and scheduled several on weekend evenings when fewer Americans would be watching. The next debate is tomorrow evening in New Hampshire.
“We’re taking on the establishment, and I’m sure there are people within the Democratic establishment that are not happy about the overwhelming success that Senator Sanders is having all across this country," he said.
“If you look at the pattern of conduct, we’ve obviously had concern about the Saturday night debate schedule and its impact on the campaigns to get their message out,” Weaver said.
Later in the day, the Clinton campaign urged "the Sanders campaign and the DNC work expeditiously to ensure that our data is not in the Sanders campaign's account and that the Sanders campaign only have access to their own data,” according to a statement released by Brian Fallon, a spokesman.
According to an audit obtained by Bloomberg, Sanders staffers exploited a temporary glitch in the DNC's voter database on Wednesday to save lists created by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told reporter there were "24 intrusion attempts" by the Sanders campaign. He and Mook insisted that the Clinton campaign did not take advantage of the bug to look at Sanders' data.
The database logs created by NGP VAN show that four accounts associated with the Sanders team took advantage of the Wednesday morning breach. Staffers conducted searches that would be especially advantageous to the campaign, including lists of its likeliest supporters in 10 early voting states, including Iowa and New Hampshire. Campaigns rent access to a master file of DNC voter information from the party, and update the files with their own data culled from field work and other investments.
After one Sanders account gained access to the Clinton data, the audits show, that user began sharing permissions with other Sanders users. The staffers who secured access to the Clinton data included Uretsky and his deputy, Russell Drapkin. The two other usernames that viewed Clinton information were “talani" and "csmith_bernie," created by Uretsky's account after the breach began.
The logs show that the Vermont senator’s team created at least 24 lists during the 40-minute breach, which started at 10:40 a.m., and saved those lists to their personal folders. The Sanders searches included New Hampshire lists related to likely voters, "HFA Turnout 60-100" and "HFA Support 50-100," that were conducted and saved by Uretsky. Drapkin's account searched for and saved lists including less likely Clinton voters, "HFA Support <30" in Iowa, and "HFA Turnout 30-70"' in New Hampshire.
Despite audit logs, Weaver said at the news conference that NGP VAN has told the campaign that no Clinton data was printed or downloaded.
Sanders was having one of the best days of his presidential campaign Thursday before the incident came to light, racking up his largest union endorsement yet, from the Communications Workers of America, as well as the backing of liberal group Democracy for America. His campaign also announced Thursday that it had surpassed 2 million contributions since its launch in late April.