Pro-Bernie Sanders super PAC leader charged with fraud

Cary Lee Peterson engaged in ‘wholly fictitious’ business deals, feds say



Cary Lee Peterson — the creator of a purportedly pro-Bernie Sanders super PAC that collected nearly $50,000 from “James Bond” actor Daniel Craig — was arrested Sunday in San Francisco by the FBI and charged with securities fraud, Department of Justice officials announced.

Peterson “defrauded investors by issuing false filings and press releases touting its purportedly lucrative — but wholly fictitious — business deals,” according to one of the government’s complaints against him.

In all, the U.S. Attorney’s Office criminally charged Peterson with one count of securities fraud and two of false certification.

Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $5 million.

The Securities and Exchange Commission also filed a civil complaint against Peterson in federal court in New Jersey alleging multiple counts of securities fraud.

Government officials say Peterson, who could not immediately be reached for comment, obtained more than $100,000 from his actions.

Peterson is currently in federal custody, scheduled to appear in federal court in San Francisco on Wednesday for a detention hearing, said Matthew Reilly, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey.

Peterson’s latest run-in with law enforcement — he has a previous arrest and two active arrest warrants in Arizona — stems from activities that predate his involvement in 2016 presidential politics.

Reached by the Center for Public Integrity, Brad Deutsch, general counsel of Sanders’ presidential campaign, said he was “not at all surprised” by the news of Peterson’s arrest.

Last year, Sanders’ campaign twice sent Peterson cease-and-desist letters, arguing that his super PAC was “illegal” and “causing harmful confusion for supporters of Senator Sanders’ campaign,” as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.

Peterson has largely ignored the letters' demands, which include taking down his websites and social media pages.

Peterson’s foray into the 2016 White House race came in February 2015, when he launched his super PAC, then called Ready for Bernie Sanders 2016. He later renamed it “Americans Socially United” to comply with federal rules barring supportive political committees from using candidates’ names without authorization.

As a super PAC, Americans Socially United can collect donations in unlimited amounts from individuals, corporations and labor unions to spend — independently — in support of Sanders’ campaign.

As of June 30, 2015, Americans Socially United was about $50,000 in debt, according to its most recent campaign finance report. That’s after it reported raising about $100,000 from dozens of donors, including some who told the Center for Public Integrity they thought they were donating to Sanders’ own campaign.

Americans Socially United failed to file a report, due in January, that would have detailed its fundraising and expenses during the second half of 2015.

A donation of $47,300 from Craig, who has portrayed James Bond in movies during the last decade, came in July, when he also gave $2,700 directly to Sanders presidential campaign. Laura Symons, Craig’s publicist, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Because Peterson has not filed mandatory campaign finance reports covering the second half of 2015, it’s unknown how many other donors have been taken in by Peterson.

Don’t ‘look back on my past’

On its bare-bones website, Sanders’ fans are solicited to donate to Americans Socially United’s coffers. It has also attempted to boost its support through Google ads over the primary season as well, as Sanders has mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Americans Socially United’s Twitter account has been largely inactive since the Center for Public Integrity’s investigations in September. But the super PAC has continued to maintain an active presence on Facebook and issue occasional pro-Sanders press releases.

Last year, Peterson told the Center for Public Integrity that would-be donors should ignore his past transgressions.

“You don’t need to look back on my past,” Peterson said. “I’m going out there trying to make a difference.”

Records show that Peterson is also serving as the treasurer of a number of other political groups —including some with official-sounding names such as the Congressional Committee on Eurasian Affairs and the Congressional Committee on Law Enforcement and Public Safety, which are not officially affiliated with Congress.

He’s also serving as the campaign treasurer of Vanessa Tijerina, a Green Party candidate for Congress in Texas.

Peterson has failed to file mandatory campaign finance reports for Tijerina as well as his network of political action committees and super PACs.

Christian Hilland, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission, declined to comment specifically on the any of Peterson’s groups but said in general that “substantial noncompliance” may lead to an audit.

The FEC may also investigate political groups that have complaints filed against them with the agency.

History of dubious businesses

In May 2012, Peterson acquired a publicly traded penny-stock company called RVPlus Inc., which had planned to manufacture products for recreational vehicles.

But under Peterson’s leadership, RVPlus Inc. — the company at the heart of the new fraud charges — sought to find a role in the “green technology” industry.

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.

But then, in July 2013, due to questions concerning the accuracy of its financial filings, the SEC suspended trading in RVPlus Inc.

Around that time, Peterson, using a pseudonym, allegedly wrote in an online forum for investors that falsifying $1.9 billion in contracts “would be suicide,” according to one of the government’s complaints.

This is not Peterson’s first brush with law enforcement, although it may be his most serious.

As the Center for Public Integrity previously reported, Peterson also has a pair of outstanding warrants in Arizona related to failing to appear in court for misdemeanor cases. One stems from a 2014 arrest on a disorderly conduct charge; the other from an alleged probation violation after a DUI conviction.

Furthermore, he was twice evicted from apartments in Texas for failing to pay rent.

And another one of Peterson’s companies — called ECCO2 Corp., which had apparently licensed intellectual property to RVPlus Inc. — has twice, in recent years, been sued for breaches of contracts in Texas and ordered to pay creditors more than $200,000.

The larger of these cases involved Dow Jones & Co., one of the nation’s largest news companies, which sued ECCO2 Corp. in 2012 after it failed to pay for advertisements in the Wall Street Journal. The media company was issued a judgment of nearly $170,000.

While these business ventures floundered, Peterson started others.

In addition to his pro-Sanders super PAC, Peterson is purportedly developing a partnership among Albania, Micronesia and the United States to develop a medicinal cannabis program.

As recently as August, Peterson visited Albania, where he met with several Albanian political officials, including Edmond Panariti, the country’s minister of agriculture and rural development and Koço Kokëdhima, a Socialist Party member of parliament.

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