Sanders campaign sues DNC amid data breach scandal

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Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The Bernie Sanders campaign filed a lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee on Friday afternoon, seeking to regain access to its voter files.

This explosive reaction came after the party organization announced it would block Sanders’ team from accessing its massive file of voter information. The DNC made its decision following revelations that a software error allowed at least one Sanders staffer to access data from the campaign of their top rival, Hillary Clinton.

Early Friday afternoon, the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders held a press conference in which it accused the Democratic National Committee of “sabotage.” In a phone call with reporters on Friday evening, a pair of top Clinton campaign aides described the situation as “disturbing” and said the Sanders campaign had engaged in “theft.”

At the press conference and in a subsequent statement, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver characterized the DNC’s move as an “inappropriate overreaction,” and suggested it was an effort to aid Clinton, who is currently the frontrunner in the party’s presidential primary.

“By their action, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign. This is unacceptable. Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign — one of the strongest grassroots campaigns in modern history,” Weaver said.

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Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver at a Friday news conference in Washington. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The lawsuit states that losing access to the DNC’s voter files inflicts “damage and financial losses … that are incapable of precise calculation, but exceed $600,000.00 per day,” and that being denied the data “could significantly disadvantage, if not cripple, a Democratic candidate’s campaign for public office,” according to a report by the Associated Press.

Though Weaver described the DNC’s move as an attempt “to attack the heart and soul of our campaign,” he admitted during the press conference that “some of our staffers irresponsibly accessed some of the data from another campaign.” He said one staffer was fired and suggested others might face “disciplinary action.”

The data breach and the Sanders campaign’s decision to fire a staffer were first reported by the Washington Post late Thursday night. The DNC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News after Weaver’s remarks.

The DNC’s move could significantly undercut Sanders’ efforts to challenge Clinton from her left flank as the campaigns prepare for the final Democratic primary debate of the year, which will take place this Saturday in New Hampshire. Weaver described the data the Sanders campaign is now blocked from accessing — which includes voter history and consumer habits of millions of voters — as “the lifeblood of any campaign.”

“This is the information about our supporters, our volunteers, the lists of people we intend to contact in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere,” Weaver said in a statement. “This is information we have worked hard to obtain. It is our information, not the DNC’s.”

In the conference call with reporters, Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, also emphasized the value of the voter file. Mook said the data accessed by Sanders’ team amounted to “the fundamental keys of our campaign,” including information about voters Clinton is targeting and how many people she expects to turn out in key primary states.

The cause of the data breach reportedly stems from problems with software provided to the Democratic campaigns by a third party, NGP VAN. This program was used to run the committee’s voter file program. Weaver accused the company, which supplies organizing, fundraising and digital tools to labor unions, campaigns and nonprofits, of failing to maintain a firewall that prevents each campaign from seeing voter data collected by their competitors. A spokesperson for NGP VAN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to Weaver’s statement, the Sanders campaign first recognized issues with the firewall in October. Rather than “run to the media,” Weaver said they reported the error to the DNC, who assured them the error would be fixed.

Two days ago, Weaver said the error occurred once again. Weaver said the Sanders campaign contacted the DNC to notify them and, at that point, realized some staffers had improperly accessed the information. The Sanders campaign reportedly fired their national data director, Josh Uretsky, for examining data from the Clinton campaign. However, in an interview with CNN, Uretsky claimed that neither he nor his colleagues were involved in any wrongdoing.

“We knew there was a security breach in the data, and we were just trying to understand it and what was happening,” he told CNN on Friday morning. “To the best of my knowledge, nobody took anything that would have given the [Sanders] campaign any benefit.”

The Clinton campaign rejected the claim the data breach was an isolated, innocuous incident. In a statement released to the press, it claimed its data was breached by Sanders campaign staff “in 25 searches by four different accounts and that this data was saved into the Sanders’ campaign account.” On the conference call, Mook described those searches as “intentional and targeted.” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon also said Sanders’ team tried to keep the information, including “a haphazard effort to copy and paste the voter data into an Excel spreadsheet.” The pair emphasized that the ultimate outcome would be between Sanders’ campaign and the DNC. Though he noted he was not “speaking for the DNC,” Fallon said he believed the decision to lock the Sanders campaign out of the voter file was just “a temporary measure that is being put into place.”

Weaver’s statement is not the first instance in which one of Clinton’s rivals has accused the DNC of unfairly aiding her campaign. The campaign of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is polling a distant third in the Democratic primary behind Clinton and Sanders, has repeatedly suggested the DNC has allowed a relatively low number of debates in order to help Clinton protect her lead.

Along with O’Malley’s concerns about the number of debates, questions have also been raised about the DNC’s unorthodox scheduling decisions. The upcoming debate is being held unusually close to the Christmas holiday. Like the most recent debate last month, the upcoming forum will take place on a Saturday. Weekends and holidays are generally times when television audiences are significantly smaller. Thus far, the Sanders campaign has not joined O’Malley’s efforts to challenge the debate process.

This post was updated at 7:00 p.m. with details from the Clinton campaign’s conference call.

Update, Dec. 19, 9:15 a.m.: Sanders will regain access to his campaign’s voter files on Saturday morning.

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