Sean McElwee is a well-known progressive activist who started the “Abolish ICE” movement and in 2018 founded Data for Progress, a progressive think tank with an emphasis on influencing public policy through polling. DFP quickly embedded itself into the top layers of the Democratic firmament. More recently, McElwee became a close political ally and adviser to FTX founder SAM BANKMAN-FRIED.
McElwee had easy access to the White House and the press. And he made sure they had access to him. He kept an open Slack channel at DFP that became a rolling conversation between McElwee, Biden administration officials, and some well-known reporters.
On Saturday, November 12, the day after FTX filed for bankruptcy and SBF resigned as CEO, McElwee abruptly shuttered the Slack channel. Six days later, he and Data for Progress began negotiating his exit from the firm he had built.
At the time, the reported reason for the rupture was that McElwee’s well-known penchant for betting on the outcomes of elections created a conflict of interest for a polling firm. A slew of 2022 DFP polls had a GOP bias, and activists on Twitter— as well as some prominent Democrats pinging reporters— asked whether McElwee was cooking DFP’s polls to affect races and cash in.
Sources at DFP insist that this would have been highly unlikely, and that their polls had a GOP bias because of an oversampling of respondents via SMS. In the wake of this, DFP recently adopted a previously unreported “Gambling and Wagering Policy” that prohibits employees from betting on anything related to DFP projects or clients.
The McElwee-DFP breakup was ugly, but the two sides were trying to negotiate an amicable separation agreement and a severance.
Then on Dec. 13, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York unsealed an eight-count indictment against SBF. The first seven counts, which were about financial crimes, garnered the most attention.
But it was the eighth count that turned heads in Washington, alleging a straw-donor scheme in which SBF funneled corporate money to candidates and committees through third parties. And SDNY alleged that SBF had help: SBF “and others known and unknown,” the indictment says, made contributions “in the names of other persons.”
In the race to figure out who might have helped SBF make straw donations, McElwee’s name was at the top of the list. The leadership at DFP suddenly feared they could be in the middle of a much bigger scandal.