ST. LOUIS, Missouri —
In less than two weeks, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri) will face the voters for the first time as an incumbent. The progressive freshman will have to overcome some powerful forces — former Rep. Lacy Clay's revenge and Republican dark money groups — working behind the scenes to block her re-election bid.
The Ferguson activist pulled off a major upset two years ago when she defeated ten-term incumbent Lacy Clay, toppling the Clay family dynasty that represented St. Louis in Congress for more than half a century.
Clay has been vocal about his push to elect a more moderate centrist Democrat. In a July Fourth tweet, Clay told his supporters he had "donated to Yachad PAC, which is independently supporting Steve Roberts in his effort to defeat Cori Bush in MO-01."
The super PAC is spending tens of thousands of dollars in radio ads in the final weeks of the primary campaign. Its website says its mission is "to fire Cori Bush" for her "abysmal voting record."
"Being a member of Congress isn’t about excelling as a performance artist, it’s about getting real results for the people who hired you," the super PAC's website says.
However, the super PAC's founding documents and subsequent filings feature a series of false statements, glaring omissions, and obscure local Republican efforts to join forces with Clay and defeat Bush.
According to the paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission, someone named Steve Zemitzsh founded the dark money group to support the campaign for Steve Roberts in December of last year. Roberts, a state senator, wouldn't officially launch his committee to run for Congress for another four months.
The phone number listed in Yachad PAC's paperwork were linked to a business owned by Paul Zemitzsch, a longtime Republican operative who lives in Clayton.
"I don’t know a Steve Zemitzsh," he said in a Wednesday afternoon phone call, claiming ignorance about three outstanding legal complaints from the FEC.
Zemitzsch said he was eager to help Roberts defeat Bush, and brushed aside the sexual assault accusations women brought forward against Roberts.
"It’s a ‘he said-she said.' One of them’s dead already," Zemitzsch said, referring to former state representative Cora Faith Walker. "He’s a 34-year-old good-looking young man. I don’t think he forced himself on anyone."
Zemitzsch claimed Clay's longtime government communications director Steve Englehardt was actually the one pulling the strings.
"Steve [Englehardt] helped arrange [the PAC]," he said. "Steve founded it. Steve happens to be Jewish."
Englehardt's name appears in the FEC documents as the super PAC's first and only publicly reported donor. To date, the super PAC still hasn't updated its quarterly donor reports, a violation which could carry fines, trigger an audit, or invite legal enforcement action, according to letters from the FEC.
Zemitzsch said the political action committee's name "Yachad" is a Yiddish word for "together." He took issue with Bush's votes against funding Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, and claimed her rhetoric was "anti-Semitic."
Because federal election law allows super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on "independent expenditures" to elect candidates, it also strictly prohibits those super PACs from coordinating directly with those candidates and their campaigns, which are subject to fundraising limitations.
In May, the FEC notified the super PAC it failed to file its financial reports before that April deadline. The group still has not updated its paperwork to bring it into compliance.
It missed another July filing deadline, while it spent tens of thousands in radio ads to promote the Roberts candidacy.
In April, Scott Martinez, a Colorado-based redistricting attorney, replied to the FEC to clarify that Englehardt's $500 contribution was the only money the PAC had collected in 2021. Calls and emails to Martinez were not returned.
Michael Dorf, an Illinois-based federal election law expert whose list of clients included Barack Obama, reviewed the FEC's letters to the Yachad PAC and described their activity as "sloppy non-compliance."
Behind the shrouds of misleading information and omitted documents was a more transparent truth: Republicans found an outlet to oppose Bush's candidacy through dark money groups.
Zemitzsch has long supported Republicans for elected office. He now says he's supporting Roberts for Congress.
"The Republican party kind of left me a little bit," he said, adding that he's "definitely not a Trumpster."
"I just back people now," he said. "I wouldn’t say I’m a Republican anymore. I don’t represent the Republican Party."
In a Tuesday interview, Roberts initially said he did not know of any Republicans supporting his campaign, though he quickly backtracked and welcomed their support in his primary race.
"Not to my knowledge," he answered when asked if he was aware of Republicans supporting his campaign.
Moments later, he said, "Well, I mean, I'm sure there's some folks who were... By Republicans, I guess the way I think of it is, you know... I hope that people vote based off who they believe the best candidate [is], and this idea of identity politics, of, you know, 'I'm a Democrat, I'm a Republican,' it's really about the values."
Zemitzsch isn't the only Republican working to elect Roberts. Another dark money group, the non-profit 501(c)(4) group 'Progressives for Missouri,' lists GOP tax attorney Mark Milton in its articles of incorporation filed with the state.
James Hill, Roberts' partner at his law firm, is listed as the registered agent for the 'Progressives for Missouri' non-profit. Hill also doubles as the treasurer for Roberts' state senate campaign committee.
Hill could not be reached for comment.
Hill's involvement in the non-profit also raises several questions about the independence and tax-exempt status of the organization. While he couldn't be reached, the Roberts campaign said his involvement was not political in nature, and that he was only assisting in filing paperwork.
"Our wall went up in May," Roberts campaign manager Ryan Hawkins said, referring to a firewall between the official campaign apparatus and outside donor groups.
Hawkins said he advised Roberts not to raise or spend any campaign funds until after April 1 so they could stay under the radar and within the law.
On Tuesday, Hawkins notified the rest of the Roberts campaign staff not to have any contact with independent dark money groups, warning them that would constitute a violation of campaign finance laws, according to emails reviewed by 5 On Your Side.
The IRS recently relaxed reporting rules which previously required nonprofits to disclose its list of donors. Nonprofits are allowed to funnel money to super PACs, which means theoretically the 'Progressives for Missouri' group could shield donors' identities and funnel their checks into the Yachad PAC, though there are no documents available to show whether or not that has occurred.
"That’s classic dark money," Dorf said. "This is how Citizens United got started. Nobody ever knows who’s funding it."
Non-profits face another requirement under the IRS that super PACs do not. The majority of their work cannot be overtly political in nature.
"The IRS rule on that is they can do partisan political activity as long as it’s not their primary purpose," Dorf said, while adding there's a "real loophole" in how that law is commonly translated and enforced.
"The IRS has not given a bright line about that, but theoretically a 501(c)(4) could spend 49% of its expenditures on political activity as long as the other 51% is spent on lobbying," he said.
All of the available content on the nonprofit's website targets Bush for "siding with our enemies."
The group's mail pieces promote Roberts as the "clear alternative" to Bush, and attack her for her votes against Israel's military defense systems.
The nonprofit was formed in September of last year, and there is no publicly available evidence that it has advocated for any issues other than to promote Roberts' election and Bush's defeat.
“That’s an IRS violation," Dorf said. "Conservative lawyers tell them not to spend more than 30-40% on expenditures."
If the IRS rules the nonprofit has violated the "primary purpose" law, the group could face fines and its donors could lose the tax-exempt status on their contributions.
A spokesperson for the Bush campaign reacted to 5 On Your Side's report on Wednesday night.
"Cori Bush is working to hold Republicans accountable for attacking our democracy," spokesperson Karthik Ganapathy said. "Steve Roberts is fighting for every last penny he can get from the party that overturned Roe v. Wade, tried to overturn a presidential election, and repeatedly gives away billions in tax cuts to the richest one percent. The choice in this race is clear."