The Democratic Party is locked in a massive battle involving Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
A software glitch earlier this week gave the Sanders campaign brief, limited access to voter information from the Clinton campaign. The Sanders campaign fired a staffer who repeatedly accessed the data, and the DNC in turn suspended the Sanders campaign’s access to its own voter information. The software vendor that controls both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns’ voter information is called NGP VAN, and it is under contract with the DNC.
The Sanders campaign says this is an unfair punishment, and it filed a lawsuit Friday charging incompetence on the part of NGP VAN and unfair treatment on the part of the DNC. The Clinton team says that Sanders staffers stole their data and that there needs to be a thorough investigation.
Here’s an explanation of what’s going on:
NGP VAN is best understood as a giant portal through which the Clinton and Sanders campaigns can access their data on voter information. Users with access can search through the voter information by creating lists of voter characteristics, like age, race or gender, but they can’t save or export this data to anything like a personal computer, though the Clinton campaign alleges this is exactly what the Sanders team attempted to do.
A bug in a Dec. 16 software update accidentally made Clinton voter information available to members of the Sanders campaign staff. But before the problem could be resolved, several members of the Sanders campaign accessed and viewed confidential information that had been reported to the DNC by Clinton’s campaign.
An internal investigation by Sanders’ campaign staff revealed that one individual, National Data Director Josh Uretsky, repeatedly accessed the rival candidate’s information. Uretsky was then fired.
On Thursday, the DNC suspended the Sanders campaign’s access to the voter data — a critical source of fundraising for the candidates as they approach the first primaries. Sanders claimed the termination came without proper notice.
Four Sanders staffers created a number of lists from the Clinton voter information available through the glitch. Members of the Sanders campaign (and the fired Uretsky) contend this was a kosher probing of the problem, while the DNC believes it’s a violation of the data access contract previously negotiated between the committee and the campaign. This disagreement is the dispute at the heart of the lawsuit filed by Sanders’ team.
In the Washington Post’s initial story about the DNC suspension on Thursday night, Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said that the DNC “is relying on an incompetent vendor [NGP VAN] who on more than one occasion has dropped the firewall between the various Democratic candidates’ data.”
Uretsky told MSNBC that this previous incident to which Weaver was referring didn’t involve VAN software, and that “it was another system.”
When reached for comment, NGP VAN directed Re/code to this company blog post.
On Friday, the Sanders campaign filed suit against the DNC, claiming it was wrongly denied access to its own voter information. The campaign asked that the court restore its access to the data and that fines be assessed in excess of $75,000.
The lawsuit claims that the Dec. 16 software update that the Sanders campaign used to access the data contained a critical security flaw that allowed one campaign to view a political rival’s confidential information. The bug in the NPG VAN software was discovered after about four hours.
Sanders’ lawyers argue that the campaign’s access to Clinton’s data was “inadvertent” and that the DNC lacked the contractual right to cut off its access to its own voter data. Sanders’ team argues that it shouldn’t be “punished for the carelessness of the DNC and its third-party vendor.”
The Vermont senator said his campaign is losing $600,000 a day in potential donations because it is unable to communicate with voters.
“The DNC’s unwarranted, unilateral suspension of the campaign’s voter data access directly impacts one of the nation’s most important electoral races, and carries political implications on a national scale,” Sanders’ team argues in the suit filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C. “The DNC should not be permitted to tip the scales of the Democratic presidential primary without clear justification and contractual cause.”
The Sanders campaign has previously tussled with DNC chair and Clinton ally Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, most notably over the issue of presidential debate scheduling. A number of observers, including ex-Obama adviser David Axelrod, point to a fight between the centrist (pro-Clinton) and left-wing (pro-Sanders) elements of the Democratic Party.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment before the time of publication.
Hillary’s Campaign Strikes Back
Hillary for America campaign manager Robby Mook held a press conference late Friday to loudly and repeatedly condemn the alleged theft of its campaign data.
“This is an egregious breach and our data was stolen,” Mook said. “It was not an inadvertent glimpse at our data. The staffers on their campaign did not make a mistake. They made 24 intentional and targeted searches of our data.”
Mook offered reporters copies of the audit reports maintained by NPG VAN, which document repeated instances in which four different users from the Sanders campaign not only searched the Clinton campaign’s records but made a haphazard attempt to export the data to an Excel spreadsheet.
“This is not an instance where they happened upon information casually and inadvertently,” Mook said. “They made an active effort to search it and retain it in what amounts to … an act of theft.”
Mook demanded a full accounting from the Sanders campaign of what its staff did, and an independent audit to confirm that the rival’s campaign is no longer in possession of Clinton’s data — which he said includes the “strategic roadmap” for the former secretary of state’s campaign.
“What we need assurance of, as quickly as possible, is that they cannot continue to do more damage,” Mook said. “Their staff stole data from our campaign and they’re now fundraising off it. The situation is very distressing. We want it remedied right away.”
This story is developing. We’ll add more details as they come in.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.