The presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders filed a lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee late Friday, arguing that the party had unfairly suspended the campaign’s access to key voter information.
The suit came hours after the campaign’s defiant campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, acknowledged at a Washington news conference that Sanders staffers had improperly reviewed information gathered by rival Hillary Clinton earlier in the week. But he accused the DNC of overreacting to the breach by suspending the Sanders campaign’s ability to access information it has gathered about its own supporters.
“By their action, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign,” Weaver said. “I think if you look at the pattern of conduct … it looks like in this case they’re trying to help the Clinton campaign.”
The messy public brawl threatened to overshadow Saturday’s third Democratic presidential debate, casting doubt on the DNC’s ability to manage the sophisticated data tools necessary for the party to win the White House next year and sparking significant suspicions among Sanders’ passionate supporters that party was conspiring to give a boost to Clinton.
In the suit, filed in federal court in Washington, the campaign argued that the agreement between the DNC and the Sanders campaign required a notice in writing if either side believed the arrangement had been broken and allowed for 10 days to address concerns — neither of which happened in this case.
“The DNC may not suspend the Campaign’s access to critical Voter Data out of haste or desperation to clean up after the DNC’s own mistakes,” the suit says.
The voter data is used heavily for fundraising, and the Sanders campaign estimated that it is losing $600,000 a day in “critical fundraising and publicity opportunities” without access to the file.
“However the damage to the Campaign’s political viability, as a result of being unable to communicate with constituents and voters, is far more severe, and incapable of measurement,” the suit says.
“The DNC should not be permitted to tip the scales of the Democratic presidential primary without clear justification and contractual cause,” the suit says. “The fairness of this pivotal national election should not be compromised because of security flaws introduced by the DNC and its vendor.”
NGP-VAN, the computer vendor that provides both campaigns access to detailed information about Democratic voters, has said that a computer error on Wednesday briefly allowed Democratic campaigns to review information that had been gathered by other campaigns.
The DNC maintains a master voter list and rents it to national and state campaigns, which then add their own, proprietary information gathered by field workers and volunteers. Firewalls are supposed to prevent campaigns from viewing data gathered by rivals.
The Sanders campaign has acknowledged that several of its staffers probed the system during that time. One operative, data director Josh Uretsky, has been fired as a result of the incident. Weaver said the actions of several others are being reviewed.
The DNC has suspended Sanders from using the system, essentially blinding the campaign as it heads into the Democratic debate in New Hampshire on Saturday.
Landing at the airport in Manchester ahead of Saturday’s debate, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said Sanders staffers needed to be “held accountable” for accessing the data and that campaign would not regain access to the system until it agrees to participate in an indepent audit and provides a full accounting of the incident.
“I’m baffled that they haven’t provided it,” she said.
“Certainly the vendor made a mistake. But people make mistakes leaving their front door unlocked also. It doesn’t mean it’s okay to go into their house and steal — and take — their stuff — which is what their campaign staff essentially did,” she added.
She said that Sanders himself was unaware of the breach until she called to discuss it 24 hours after it took place.
“He was stunned,” she said. “I know that Sen. Sanders had absolutely nothing to do with this….Unfortuantely he has staff who acted inappropriately and they need to be held accountable.”
Weaver blamed the software vendor for the breach, which allowed all campaigns to access one another’s data for a time, insisting that the Sanders campaign had actually quietly alerted the DNC to problems with the system in October. In the federal suit filed Friday, the campaign argued that a “similar security incident” during the 2008 presidential campaign resulted in unintentional transmission of confidential information” to Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign against President Obama.
He said Friday that the action essentially amounts to “holding our campaign hostage” and said the campaign would seek federal court action to force the party to restore its access to the software.
“We’re running a clean campaign,” he said. “We don’t need dirty tricks.”
Uretsky told The Washington Post on Friday that when the software glitch was discovered on Wednesday, he and other staffers investigated the problem to discover the extent of their own data exposure.
“We intentionally did it in a way that was trackable and traceable so that when they did an audit they would be able to see exactly what we did,” Uretsky said. He said there was no attempt to take Clinton information out of the software system, but said he took responsibility for the situation.
“To some extent, it’s being punished for transparency,” Uretsky said.
The severity of the data breach remained an issue of serious dispute on Friday. Computer logs reviewed by the Washington Post showed that four Sanders staffers conducted 24 separate searches of Clinton data during a 40 minute window on Wednesday, targeting early voting states and searching for lists of voters most and least likely to support Clinton. The logs show that in some cases, the staffers saved the search results in new folders created within the system.
Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said the campaign had been informed that its data had been “saved into the Sanders’ campaign account.”
“We are asking that 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,” he said in a statement.
Weaver said a tick-tock provided to the Sanders campaign by the computer vendor did not show that data had been removed from the system. He indicated the DNC’s decision to block the campaign from the system had thwarted its effort to internally investigate what had occurred.
On MSNBC, Wasserman-Schultz said Sanders supporters complaining about the campaign’s treatment should put “the shoe on the other foot.”
“If it were the Clinton campaign that accessed the proprietary information of the Sanders campaign, you can be darned sure, understandably, that his supporters would expect that we would take the exact same action,” she said.
The incident has served as an immediate crisis for the Sanders campaign, but also a serious blow to the DNC, calling into question the party’s readiness to tackle the sophisticated modern effort necessary for Democrats to win the White House next year.
The party could find its relevance severely diminished if campaigns doubt the integrity and reliability of its core voter data system. At the same time, a chorus of Sanders supporters suggested the party was overhyping the severity of the breach, forsaking its role as neutral arbiter in the primary race.
Already, Sanders backers had accused the DNC of limiting the number and prominence of debates between the presidential candidates at the behest of the Clinton campaign.
News broke of the data breach just as Sanders was enjoying a fresh burst of momentum after months in which his progress appeared to have stalled.
“They’ve been sabotaging Bernie’s campaign all along,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, an 185,000-member union backing Sanders. “This entire campaign, it’s been a rigged process. What’s insidious is they’re capitalizing on this to help their coronated candidate right before the election.” DeMoro called the DNC’s decision to cut Sanders’s access to the data “an act of political sabotage.”
On Thursday, Sanders received his biggest labor union endorsement to date, from the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America, as well as another nod from Democracy for America, a progressive group that claims 1 million members nationwide. That group, founded by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who is backing Clinton, said it had surveyed its membership and found 88 percent favored endorsing Sanders.
Sanders, who has raised most of his money from small donors over the Internet, also this week celebrated a fundraising milestone: more than 2 million contributions to his campaign. That figure made him competitive with the effort of President Obama’s 2012 re-election effort during the same stretch.
A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll released this week showed Sanders trailing Clinton in Iowa by 9 percentage points, hardly an insurmountable lead with more than six weeks to go until the Feb. 1 caucuses. And most recent polls have shown Sanders with a lead in New Hampshire, including one by CNN/WMUR that put him up by 10 percentage points.