If a Hollywood screenwriter was to create a character that embodies what people hate about politics, the character likely would look a lot like Carlos Sierra. A 36-year-old El Paso political consultant without any obvious fixed ideology, Sierra lurks in the darkest corners of the electoral process, apparently sneering at the rules and waging personal vendettas. He’s often untruthful when talking to the media; the only publicly available photos of him are a string of jail booking mugshots.
When I recently asked him to comment about some of his political work, Sierra was his typical self. “I only talk to real journalists so don’t ever email me again, you douchebag.” His experience runs the political gamut: he’s had top positions in Republican and Libertarian presidential campaigns; he worked on an effort to draft Democratic Vice President Joe Biden to run for president; and he’s been a consultant on local races in El Paso. Sierra also has weaponized super PACs, the controversial political action committees that can accept unlimited donations and make endless expenditures attacking candidates. Super PACs feed public cynicism about the American political process, but they at least are required to publicly disclose where their money is coming from—although there are still ways to hide donor names—and how it is spent. This year, Sierra ran a super PAC called Keep El Paso Honest. The PAC ran a series of negative ads in El Paso’s 16th Congressional District Democratic primary that targeted eventual winner Veronica Escobar, the former county judge in El Paso. Sierra and Keep El Paso Honest have so far ignored a series of Federal Election Commission deadlines for public disclosure of who funded the effort, and how the money was spent. That failure to file a disclosure report is clear violation of federal election law.
It also underscores problems with the federal agency that monitors election laws. In 2014, for example, the then-head of the Federal Elections Commission, Ann M. Ravel, wrote in the New York Times that she had largely given up on reining in abuses of the election law. “(T)he F.E.C. is failing in its job to ensure that voters know who is behind the rapidly proliferating political advertisements made possible by this extraordinary spending,” she wrote then.
But there are others who refuse to give up on the notion that voters are entitled to know who is funding elections and how the money is being spent. One of them is Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. When asked about Sierra’s activities, Fischer said, “I’ve not seen an example previously of a Super PAC spending a significant amount of money on an election and then not filing any reports whatsoever.”
As it turns out, Sierra has done this before.
Sierra grew up in El Paso and went to college at the University of Arizona. He served as a low-level staffer to Senator John McCain on his presidential campaigns and in his Arizona senate office. While working for McCain, he picked up two drunk-driving convictions in Arizona in 2009. In 2014, he was convicted a third time in Arizona for drunk driving, making it a felony. He also was accused of indecency with a child in El Paso in 2013, a charge that was later dismissed. After leaving McCain’s office in 2011, Sierra formed his own political consulting firms—Renegade Public Affairs and Sierra Public Affairs. In 2012, he created a Super PAC called Opportunity for All that sent out a flier accusing Arizona U.S. Representative Raúl Grijalva, a progressive icon, of voting to cut Medicare. Sierra told Mother Jones that his intent was “moderating politics” by attacking more ideological Republicans and Democrats. “I know I will make enemies but our country needs an ass-kicking,” he told the magazine. Grijalva called a press conference to denounce the mailer. “We saw we were gonna be victims to this bullshit, and so (we) decided we’re gonna push back,” Grijalva told Mother Jones. Sierra said he would disclose his contributors, but FEC records show that he never filed any campaign finance reports for Opportunity for All, and ignored three requests for additional information from the agency. There’s no record of any FEC enforcement action against Opportunity for All, likely because it didn’t receive a required formal complaint. Grijalva rolled to an easy victory in his 2012 primary with 66 percent of the vote.
Sierra has been on the fringes of the national political stage since. He served as campaign manager for former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer’s 2012 presidential run, an effort best known for the candidate’s complaints over not being allowed into televised primary debates because of near-invisible poll numbers. FEC records show that Sierra was paid $76,850 to run the Roemer campaign, or about 10 percent of the failed candidate’s total expenditures. He next surfaced nationally in 2015 as political and field director for Draft Biden. He was ousted from that role in October 2015 when Roll Call inquired about his criminal record. The PAC told Roll Call that Sierra was an unpaid volunteer, but campaign finance reports would later show that he was paid $4,500 for “communications consulting services.” Sierra then hooked on with former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson’s 2016 Libertarian Party presidential campaign. Sierra was paid $44,000 to be Johnson’s national field director. Sierra’s last known political job was as campaign manager in 2017 for Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, a Massachusetts Republican congressional candidate who paid him $9,750 before dropping out of the race. That left Sierra free to focus on El Paso’s Democratic congressional primary.
In November 2017, an Ohio political operative named Lindsey Workman filed the paperwork with the FEC to create Keep El Paso Honest. She and Sierra worked together on the Johnson presidential campaign, and she currently works as national development director for a libertarian organization called Our America Initiative, according to her LinkedIn profile. Workman also declined to comment. Keep El Paso Honest initially was registered with the FEC as a political action committee, which would allow individuals to donate up to $5,000 under federal law. The PAC then could make contributions to candidates it supported. But in December, Keep El Paso Honest changed its registration to a Super PAC, which allowed it to accept unlimited campaign contributions and make independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates. Sierra told the El Paso Times in February that Keep El Paso Honest had raised about $125,000, though he provided nothing to support that claim.
Sierra said his effort against Escobar, a former El Paso County commissioner and county judge, was personal. “We already have a bully in the White House, we don’t need to add another one to our dysfunctional Congress,” he said in a November email to the El Paso Times. Escobar’s not sure why Sierra harbors such animus. “I don’t think I’ve ever met him, or if I met him, I don’t remember meeting him,” she said.
Keep El Paso Honest ran a TV commercial in January and February claiming that Escobar had changed in her 10 years as county judge. The ad, which ran at least 120 times, had a cartoonish look and misogynistic flavor, slowly playing “The Old Gray Mare” as background music. The group purchased billboards that said that Escobar had doubled her salary and raised taxes during her tenure, an attack she called misleading. Keep El Paso Honest also purchased social media ads saying Escobar—a staunch critic of President Trump—was a hypocrite because her husband is an immigration judge. The group sent out mailers shortly before Election Day urging Republicans to cross over into the Democratic primary and support Dori Fenenbock, a former El Paso school board president.
Escobar easily defeated five opponents in the Democratic primary race to succeed Beto O’Rourke, who gave up the seat to challenge Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Her general election race against Republican Rick Seeberger is viewed as little more than a formality in El Paso, which has elected only Democrats to Congress in the past 54 years. Even though Keep El Paso Honest’s effort was a failure, Escobar said the public still deserves transparency. She filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission in February and April after Keep El Paso Honest failed to file required disclosures. “When we don’t know who is financing campaigns, I think that’s very dangerous for democracy,” Escobar said.
Campaign finance law can sometimes be murky, such as the debate over whether Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels constituted an illegal contribution to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But the law is very clear on the reporting responsibilities for PACs and Super PACs. They must file regular reports to the FEC disclosing who contributed money, and how the money was spent. Failure to file reports on time can lead to administrative fines or, in rare cases, criminal prosecution.
“The law is cut and dry that Super PACs have to file quarterly reports and they have to file pre-election reports for elections that they’re spending money in, and it doesn’t look like this group has done that,” said Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center.
Escobar is running her fourth campaign and is not naïve about the dark arts that are common in El Paso politics. When she ran for re-election as county judge in 2014, an anonymous robocall went out to voters falsely saying she planned to tear down the county jail. But she feels the Keep El Paso Honest campaign is a new level of ugly politics. “You have someone, you know, this character Carlos Sierra, who is almost just brazen about it,” said Escobar. “It is almost as though he is openly saying, you know, ‘I challenge the FEC to come after me.’” On the crucial question of who funded the Super PAC campaign, Escobar believes disclosure is unlikely. “I don’t think they have any intention of ever reporting who gave them the money.”
Fischer, the campaign finance expert, is more optimistic about eventual disclosure. “This just seems like an incredibly clear-cut example of very basic reporting requirements and the FEC should do its job and make sure that voters do know who funded this group and also how they spent their money. That’s the reason that disclosure and reporting laws are on the books, so the public knows who’s trying to influence them and in what way they’re trying to influence them.”
Of course, Sierra’s not talking. “This Texas campaign cycle was a tough one, but gotta keep on fighting against crappy politicians,” he said in a blog post the day after the primary elections. “I got a bunch of interview requests today, but my mom taught me to not say anything if I have nothing nice to say so I refused all of them.”