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Billionaire Bloomberg Tried to Inject Private Money Into Philly’s Election Offices

Three months before Election Day in 2020, an intermediary for Michael Bloomberg reached out to the city of Philadelphia’s election offices offering to provide millions of dollars to help the city staff the election as well as pay for communications and other expenses the city might need.

The former New York City mayor had himself been an entrant in the Democratic contest for the presidential nomination that year, but dropped out in March after the Super Tuesday primaries in early March, endorsing Joe Biden immediately upon his exit from the presidential race.

The finding underscores the nature to which donors were trying — often outside of the public eye — to shower money on elections offices in the runup to the final vote, especially as the pandemic as well as vote-by-mail procedures had roiled standard election plans across the country and the commonwealth.

Amid scrutiny of the flood of private spending in the election’s wake, however, several states including Pennsylvania have banned private grants to election offices, like those made by a Chicago-based nonprofit, the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). State Republicans have argued that the gifts could be used to create a bias intended to favor one candidate or party over another by leveraging turnout in selective locations. Democrats countered that the private funding helped already overwhelmed elections offices deal with the massive complexities proposed by the pandemic, and the anticipated “fall surge” of 2020.

On Aug. 7, Nick Custodio, a deputy commissioner in Philadelphia’s Office of City Commissioners, emailed Stanford politics professor Nate Persily, obviously continuing a conversation that had begun elsewhere. The subject line of the email was simply, “Bloomberg[.]”

“We just finalized our CTCL grant a few hours ago. Do I need to get you the Bloomberg thing tonight or can it wait until tomorrow afternoon?” Custodio wrote to Persily.

As the conversation continued on the following day, Persily wrote, “Can you just send me some bullet points on how much you would want from him and what it would be spent on?”

Hours later, Custodio dashed off a figure of just over $3 million. The first $2 million was dedicated to staffing costs, with another half million allocated each for communications and “mail-in voting consumables.”

Read More: Democratic-leaning counties selectively invited to apply for election grants, emails show

The city did not return a request for comment as to whether it accepted any funds from Bloomberg. Questions sent to email accounts at as well as about what other cities, counties, or states Bloomberg approached for election funding were not returned. Persily also did not respond to requests for comment.

As Custodio alluded, the city had just completed its $10 million grant request to the CTCL, knowing already that the grant was likely going to be completely fulfilled. The grant nearly doubled the city’s election budget.

Besides his work professor at Stanford, Persily is active in the broader political arena, authoring numerous op-eds about elections in places like the Washington Post and New York Times. In 2020, he was also running the “Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project” which included the CTCL as a partner.

His emails to Custodio are also noteworthy because it provides yet another marker showing how closely the CTCL and the Center for Secure and Modern Elections (CSME) were working together on the election grants. At least in Persily’s mind, the two were closely related enough that he conflated them as the same project.

After Custodio noted he had finished writing the CTCL grant, Persily responded, “I understand that the requests for CSME will be fully granted.”

When Custodio informed Persily that Philadelphia hadn’t been in contact with the CSME, Persily said, “Yes — CTCL is working with CSME.”

As Broad + Liberty has previously reported, CSME is not a 501(c)3 nonprofit. It is a project under the vast umbrella of the Arabella network, which the Atlantic magazine called, “The Massive Progressive Dark-Money Group You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Despite the fact that the CSME was a significant driver of the CTCL grants, no news articles or press releases in the months before the election exist explaining the partnership between the two, or informing the public that the CSME was a partner in the grants, raising issues of transparency.

Additionally, CSME was running an operation called the “Cities Project” that seems to be directly linked to the CTCL grants, but for which no online information exists. The only information about the Cities Project has come from government emails obtained through open records requests concerning the CTCL grants, as well as a couple of foundations publicly noting they had made donations to the Cities Project.

While Bloomberg is well known for financing his own political campaigns, the money he spends on other causes is sometimes even more influential, according to a report from the Atlantic in January of 2020.

“In short, the money Bloomberg spent in office helped him to be more popular and successful as mayor than he otherwise would have been. Much of this money can’t be tracked by the usual means of measuring funds in politics: campaign-finance disclosures,” Atlantic journalist  Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote.

“Sometimes the influence of Bloomberg’s money was direct and visible; sometimes it was more subtle. Never was it clearer than during his extension of city term limits. I [Dovere} covered the Bloomberg administration for eight years, and I remember standing outside the handful of show hearings the city council held concerning his term-limits extension in 2008,” Dovere continued.

“The rooms at city hall were packed with people who had never taken an interest in municipal affairs before, but were now showing their support for extending term limits. Why were they there? I kept getting the same answer: Their bosses had told them to come. A few worked for arts organizations and other nonprofits. A few worked for the Doe Fund, which provides an array of services for the city’s homeless. The common thread: Bloomberg checks.”

Philadelphia, meanwhile, is trying to block another Right to Know Law request from Broad + Liberty pertaining to the 2020 CTCL grants by elevating the dispute over the requested emails to Commonwealth Court.

Governor Tom Wolf and other Democrats had denigrated the bill that proposed to ban private money to fund election offices, only to later pass it as part of a larger budget agreement.

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.

Ban On Private Election Funding Passes Legislature; Will Wolf Sign?

A bill to do away with private funds going to “administer” elections passed the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature. But it is unclear whether Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf will sign it.

Todd Shepherd, former Delaware Valley Journal editor who is now an investigative reporter at Broad and Liberty, testified before a state Senate committee on April 5 about outside money that arguably impacted the 2020 election. The funds came from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a nonprofit organization funded through a foundation of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscila Chan– hence the name “Zuckerbucks.”

The couple gave $419 million to two nonprofits that, in turn, gave funds to nearly 2,500 local election departments across the country in the 2020 election.

CTCL donated to mostly Democrat majority counties for get-out-the-vote efforts, with Pennsylvania receiving more than $20 million. And another group, the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, was also involved in the efforts, Shepherd said.

“The handful of blue counties contacted in July and August of that year were given special assistance by outside consultants — some of them paid political consultants with clear partisan interests,” said Shepherd.

“Those consultants worked to make sure the county would get the maximum grant award. I found no similar emails for grant maximization with any of Pennsylvania’s red counties.”

Shepherd continued, “For example, this is the first email I could find in which Delaware County Councilwoman Christine Reuther was originally introduced to someone about the CTCL grants.

“The email participants were as I mentioned Councilwoman Reuther, consultant Marc Solomon, Jennifer Walls-Lavelle who was a staffer for Gov. Wolf, Gwen Camp — the author of the email and a paid consultant for ‘The Voter Project’ — and finally, Kevin Mack, a DC-based consultant.”

And it is not just Pennsylvania. The Capitol Research Center, a center-right think tank, found a similar trend nationwide. CTCL “consistently gave bigger grants and more money per capita to counties that voted for Biden,” its investigation found. For example, the average per capita grant in Georgia for areas that leaned Republican was $1.41 per person. In pro-Biden districts, the donations reached an average of $5.33.

In his testimony regarding “Zuckerbucks” in Pennsylvania,  Shepard detailed how Democratic operatives were deeply involved in the election activities funded by these outside groups.

Another Reuther email exchange that Shepherd highlighted for the committee was between Reuther and Delaware County Solicitor William “Bill” Martin. Martin was sending her information on who comprised and funded the CTCL.

“Ms. Reuther responded, ‘Not at all surprising. I am seeking funds to fairly and safely administer the election so everyone legally registered to vote can do so and have their votes count. If a left-leaning public charity wants to further my objective, I am good with it. I will deal with the blowback.’”

However, Shepherd’s investigation found only targeted, Democratic majority counties were given early notice that the grants were available.

Shepherd also told the committee, “Last, in terms of exhibits, we have the mid-August email from then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to a county commissioner in Bucks County, establishing communication about the CTCL grants.

“Bucks is a very purple-ish county, as you all know, but still I feel this selective invitation to an election grant by the state’s top election official needs answers. Why is she making the introductions instead of the CTCL?

“And just to drive home the question: With just two and a half months to go before the election, why is the secretary of state inviting some counties to get this grant money but not others? How was she deciding who to reach out to? Was she told by the CTCL and CSME who the preferred counties were? Or did she decide herself? And if she did decide by herself, what information or concerns guided those decisions?”

Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Bucks/Berks/Montgomery) said, “We must eliminate the heavy hand of massive private funding into our commonwealth’s and our nation’s elections, with no exceptions.  The effect of Mark Zuckerberg’s, and others, spending to influence their desired outcome is uncalculatable.  No one person, or small group of extremely rich people should determine the outcome of an election—that is the responsibility of all our citizens.”

“It is very likely Governor Wolf will veto the bill,” Mensch added.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg recently announced he will no longer give money to outside groups for election administration.

When asked whether Wolf would sign or veto the bill, the governor’s spokeswoman Elizabeth Remeter did not give a direct answer, instead blaming the legislature for failing to give the counties adequate funding for elections.

“First, it’s important to point out that counties have asked for additional funding from the General Assembly, so it is hypocritical to both ignore the asks from counties while simultaneously proposing to end opportunities for counties to seek funding to ensure safe elections,” said Remeter.

“The governor has long called for improvements to our election process that safely expands access to the ballot. He also continues to push back on anyone who tries to spread misinformation and make baseless accusations that our elections are anything short of free, fair, and secure,” she said.

“Instead of continuing to pursue conspiracy theories and new ways to disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters, Senate Republicans should refocus their efforts on bipartisan ways we can continue to fund elections.”

Remeter added, “Instead of indulging discredited conspiracy theories and making it more difficult for the counties to obtain resources they need to administer elections, we should have a real conversation about properly funding elections and finally make commonsense election improvements to our election code like allowing pre-canvassing of ballots, which is supported by the state county commissioners association and all 67 counties.”


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