Matt Sanderson, Class of 2008, appeared before the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on June 30, 2011, with his boss, former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, now a member of Caplin & Drysdale, and their client, comedian Stephen Colbert. Within less than an hour, Colbert was celebrating his legal team's success on camera as the group emerged from the hearing. "We owe a debt to my lawyers Trevor Potter and Matt Sanderson of the heroic law firm Caplin & Drysdale," he crowed. "Two names that will go down with the great American duos—Lewis and Clark, Sacco and Vanzetti, Harold and Kumar."
Potter and Sanderson may be the only two high-profile D.C. lawyers ever compared on national television to a pot-smoking duo featured in a series of B-grade comedy films. Potter leaned over and asked Sanderson, "Who are Harold and Kumar?"
"I still haven't answered him," Sanderson admitted.
Sanderson and Potter have represented Colbert since he began exploring the formation of his own political action committee—the Colbert Super PAC—in March 2011 before a live audience on his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. The FEC's favorable ruling last June ensured that Colbert could discuss his satiric but entirely legitimate Super PAC on his Comedy Central program without requiring Viacom, which owns the Comedy Central network, to report the costs of producing the segments as an in-kind contribution to the Colbert Super PAC.
It also gained Potter, who was catapulted into the national spotlight last spring, a permanent pop history presence as the calm, affable legal advisor who has ably guided the slyly naïve Colbert as his PAC dealt with such issues as donors who wish to remain anonymous. Although political action committees must report the names of all contributions, this issue turned out to be easy to resolve. With Potter's help, Colbert formed a 501(c)(4) corporation, "Anonymous Shell Corporation," to which donors can contribute anonymously, on a Colbert Report segment last September. "Can I take this (c)(4) money and then donate it to my Super Pac?" Colbert asked gleefully. "You can!" Potter said. "What is the difference between this and money laundering?" Colbert asked. "It's hard to say," Potter replied.
Sanderson helps Potter represent Colbert and prepare for the Colbert Report segments. "I actually told him, 'There are two types of guests—the distinguished guest, who gets to play the straight man to Stephen, and guests who are the chumps.'" Sanderson recalled. Potter is decidedly not the chump in the clever segments, which recently won a Peabody Award, one of broadcast television's top prizes, for illuminating the vagaries of campaign finance law. The chump role goes to Colbert's other adviser, "Ham Rove," a canned ham shaped suspiciously like the head of a well-known political consultant that wears glasses.
Sanderson, who originally urged Potter to take Colbert as a client and become a regular on his program, recently helped write the instruction manual that accompanied the $99 Colbert Super PAC Super Fun Pack, a do-it-yourself kit for college students seeking to form their own Super PACS. "It actually looked like an Ikea instruction manual, and the kit came with an Allen wrench," Sanderson said. The kit also included a treasure map, a T-shirt and a miniature version of the silent Super PAC adviser dubbed "Hamlet Rove," but Sanderson emphasizes that the instruction manual is legally correct.
"Our job is to make sure the ideas of Stephen and his team comply with federal rules," Sanderson explained. "A lot of people now understand what a political action committee is and what it can do because of the show's effort. Stephen's Super PAC is a real-life PAC with a million-plus dollars in it, and they are spending money and running ads. It's been a big part of the show over the last year, and Stephen and his team have shown a great ability to absorb and explain a lot of really dry and arcane rules."
Sanderson became interested in campaign finance after taking a two-week course in campaign finance from Kirk Jowers, a partner at Caplin & Drysdale, as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. Sanderson earned the highest grade Jowers had ever given in the course. Then Jowers helped him land an internship at the Campaign Legal Center, a D.C.-based non-profit organization that advocates for tough campaign finance laws. Sanderson spent both summers working at Caplin & Drysdale during law school, and joined the firm after serving as Campaign Finance Counsel for the McCain 2008 presidential campaign. He counts Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper, from whom he took Campaign Finance Law at Vanderbilt, as a mentor, and considers himself lucky to have the opportunity to focus on an area of law so specialized that "there are only around 60 attorneys who do this on a regular basis."
Much of Sanderson's legal work involves advising corporate clients on compliance issues. "We don't do a ton of candidate work," he said. "We represent presidential campaigns, and we advise large corporations, trade associations and non-profits on compliance with the rules that come into play any time you want to spend money on politics or lobbying."
His role as an advisor to Colbert isn't the first time Sanderson has shared the national spotlight because of a PAC. With three other Vanderbilt law graduates—Chad Pehrson '08, Bentley Peay '07 and Matt Martinez '07—Sanderson formed PlayoffPAC in 2009 to advocate for a playoff system for college football as opposed to the entrenched bowl system. PlayoffPAC played a key role in exposing corruption in the management of the Fiesta Bowl and was a 2011 nominee for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year Award. "The Fiesta Bowl is organized as a public charity with the same tax designation as the American Red Cross," Sanderson said. "They were engaging in all sorts of illegalities and improprieties, and we were the ones to finally point that out."Top of page