Ariel Zimman is taking a decidedly grassroots approach to supporting Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. But the legality of her handiwork is hazy, at best.
The 29-year-old resident of Portland, Oregon, is marketing homemade ceramic pipes emblazoned with decals of Sanders’ head and campaign logo.
Her pro-Sanders “smoking ware” — targeted at the “Burners for Bernie” set — sells for $60 apiece. And she advertises that 10 percent of her proceeds will benefit the self-described socialist from Vermont who has emerged as an unexpectedly serious challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
“It was really just a way to show my support for him as a candidate,” Zimman told the Center for Public Integrity. “People love [the pipes], and once they hear they are contributing in some way to the campaign, they are all about that too.”
But artists like Zimman looking to make a buck off Bernie best beware: While most observers say political campaigns are unlikely to take legal action against their own supporters, attorneys say entrepreneurs open themselves to risk by using candidates’ names, likenesses or logos — especially when promising to donate a specific portion of their sales.
“You can’t promise to pass the money along to the candidate,” said Joe Birkenstock, an attorney at Sandler Reiff who previously served as the chief counsel of the Democratic National Committee.
“If I was advising one of these vendors, I would probably advise them to be a little less specific in their solicitation,” echoed Larry Noble, a former top lawyer for the Federal Election Commission who now works at the Campaign Legal Center.
That’s a step that Sanders-supporting artist Jackie Dandelion of Beacon, New York, has already taken.
Dandelion sells her “Another Mermaid for Bernie Sanders” bumper stickers for $8.50 apiece. She used to advertise that she’d donate 25 percent of each sale to Sanders. Now she simply notes that a portion of the proceeds — an unspecified figure greater than 25 percent — goes to his campaign.
“Just know when you purchase from me, you're purchasing from someone who actively supports Bernie Sanders for president,” she wrote on the peer-to-peer e-commerce website Etsy.com.
Other lawyers contacted by the Center for Public Integrity didn’t find these activities as troubling.
Ken Gross, who leads the political law practice at Skadden Arps, noted that such artists are “actually doing good for the campaign,” even if the products they make are not licensed or authorized.
“I can’t imagine the campaign going against them,” Gross said. “They’re supporters. They don’t want to turn them off.”
Dan Backer, an attorney at DB Capitol Strategies, said pro-Sanders artists pledging to donate a portion of their profits are “attempting to entice sales from a target audience” and “are saying what they will do with their revenues,” not engaging in formal fundraising.
“It only becomes a problem if they say they will forward the money — not the profits — to the campaign,” Backer continued. “If they specifically say ‘Give me $10, I will send $2 to the campaign in your name, and the other $8 will go towards this stuff,’ that’s a problem.”
Like any donor, artists cannot exceed the $2,700 limit on political contributions to federal candidates. And donations must also be made from personal funds, not a corporate account — although some limited liability companies are allowed to give so long as the money is attributed to a living, breathing human being.
Kenneth Pennington, Sanders’ digital director, told the Center for Public Integrity that the Sanders campaign doesn’t “authorize or condone” volunteer fundraising through the selling of products with the intent of passing along money to the campaign.
He declined to comment on the specific examples raised by the Center for Public Integrity, although he noted that “it’s not okay to sell things with the campaign’s logo.”
Zimman, the Portland-based pipe-maker, said she hasn’t heard one way or the other from Sanders’ campaign. But, she added, “If they need me to stop and they ask me to stop, I’ll stop.”
To date, Zimman said she’s contributed about $150 to Sanders. She plans on donating another $200 within a month. That amounts to about $3,000 worth of pipe sales, she said.
To hit the legal limit on how much she could donate to Sanders, she would need to sell about 400 more — likely a stretch for her one-woman operation.
“There is profit on my side of the business, but I’m also doing it for their profit as well,” Zimman said.
“It’s not a huge profit scheme that I’m working on,” she continued. “I would hope that Mr. Sanders would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re a small business, and you’re doing something that obviously is filling a need in the marketplace.'”
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.