Dark money groups tied to Donald Trump’s inner circle and backed by people who have spread baseless claims about the 2020 presidential election appear to be playing a key role in funding an unprecedented review of 2.1m ballots in Arizona.
Republicans in the Arizona state senate, which authorized the inquiry, allocated $150,000 in state funds to pay for it – just a fraction of the projected overall cost, which is still unknown. The state senate had enough money in its operating budget to pay for the investigation, the Arizona Mirror reported in April, but chose not to pay the full price.
Instead, the effort is being paid for by private donors, who remain hidden from the public, according to a review by OpenSecrets and the Guardian. Arizona Republicans and Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based company overseeing the review, have refused to say who is providing the rest of the money.
“It is wholly inappropriate that the Arizona state senate is hiding the mechanisms by which their sanctioned activity is being funded,” said Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who served as the top election official in Maricopa county, the target of the ballot review, until he lost his re-election bid last year. “The lack of transparency there is just grotesque.”
Questions about funds come as the Arizona senate has faced scrutiny for why it hired Cyber Ninjas, a firm with little experience in auditing elections to oversee its massive review. Doug Logan, the firm’s chief executive, expressed support for the idea that the election was stolen from Trump.
Karen Fann, the president of the Arizona state senate, said last year she received a phone call from Trump thanking her for “pushing to prove any fraud”, according to emails obtained by American Oversight, a left-leaning watchdog group. Fann, a Republican, also said she had spoken with Rudy Giuliani, a Trump ally, multiple times last year.
At least $150,000 of the inquiry’s funding has purportedly come from Voices and Votes, a 501(c)(4) run by Christina Bobb, an anchor for the One America News Network (OANN), a rightwing media network that has given air to election conspiracy theories. The group is also run with the White House correspondent Chanel Rion and Courtland Sykes, Rion’s fiance. Bobb spoke with Trump about the review, according to the Washington Post, and emailed Fann affidavits on behalf of Giuliani last year, emails show.
Bobb frequently plugs the effort during shows, where she covers the Arizona review, and on social media, but told BuzzFeed that OANN is not “in any way” affiliated with her fundraising despite the dark money group being run by multiple OANN employees and being promoted on the network. Voices and Votes was incorporated in Wyoming in March, shortly before the inquiry was announced, by Greg Roeberg, an Arizona attorney. A press release from the Trump campaign last year listed a Greg Roeberg as a “key member” of Jewish Voices for Trump. Roeberg said in an email he was not involved with the charity beyond helping it with the initial legal papers. The group declined an interview request.
L Lin Wood, the pro-Trump attorney behind a slew of lawsuits seeking to overturn election results last year, told Talking Points Memo that his non-profit, Fight Back, donated $50,000 to Voices and Votes for the review. But it is not clear what the money is actually going to since the groups are subject to few financial disclosure rules.
Wood, who has promoted fundraising efforts for the review on Telegram, also told TPM that Cyber Ninja chief Logan worked out of Wood’s home to investigate 2020 election voter fraud claims.
Patrick Byrne, the former chief executive of Overstock.com and an ardent Trump supporter, is also leading a group funding the effort. Byrne was involved in what Axios described as the “craziest meeting of the Trump presidency” – a December 2020 summit in the Oval Office that included Michael Flynn, and Sidney Powell, who falsely claimed voting machines had flipped votes for Trump and suggested he use government resources to seize voting machines. Byrne also reportedly screamed at representatives from the White House counsel’s office, saying they were not sufficiently helping to overturn the election.
In April, Byrne’s non-profit, the America Project, launched a Fund the Audit campaign aiming to raise $2.8m. Byrne says he contributed $1m to the effort, but at least another $900,000 has come from unknown sources. Byrne’s non-profit is also helping vet workers who participate in the review, according to the Arizona Republic.
Byrne also served as chief of another dark money group involved in the review, Defending the Republic, though he claims he resigned in April. Created by Powell, Defending the Republic published every Arizona lawmaker’s contact info on their website and promoted a misleading “Election Fraud Facts & Details“ document authored for the Arizona senate by Cyber Ninja’s Logan before the “audit” effort. The document contains disproven claims about voting machine software switching votes from Trump to Biden.
Powell’s group also previously hired Wake Technology Services, Inc (Wake TSI), a subcontractor, to audit election equipment in Fulton county, Pennsylvania, at the request of Doug Mastriano, a state senator who aggressively suggested the election was stolen, according to county documents obtained by the Guardian.
Paula Shives, a Democrat on the three-member county commission, was stunned that the company was allowed to inspect election materials last year. “Who authorized this? When was this scheduled? Who was notified and present during the process?” Shives wrote in a text message to the country’s election director and two commissioners that was obtained by OpenSecrets and the Guardian through a public records request.
The lack of transparency there is just grotesque
Randy Bunch, a Republican county commissioner, replied that the review did not show any problems: “On a good note, they didn’t find one thing wrong and praise our team meaning Patty and our staff on how organized everything was and we come [sic] out with no flaws it all matched up.”
Wake TSI submitted a draft report to county officials in February that appeared to back up that assessment, according to the Washington Post.
But the copy of that Pennsylvania review uploaded on the county website contended Dominion Voting Systems did not meet the state’s certification requirements, documented “errors” in scanning ballots, and purportedly identified “non-certified” software installed in the county’s voting system. (Wake TSI did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Wake TSI abruptly withdrew from the Arizona review in May, and it is unclear why. Mastriano was one of several Pennsylvania lawmakers who visited the audit site in early June, where he was interviewed by Bobb on OANN.
For weeks, observers have pointed out that the procedures in place for the unprecedented inquiry are shoddy and do not resemble a neutral audit. But Trump has also become increasingly focused on the Arizona review and possible similar efforts elsewhere. Trump has reportedly told people close to him he expects to be “reinstated” as president this summer – something that would be impossible under the current legal system.
The influx of private funds comes as Republicans themselves, including in Arizona, have pushed to outlaw the use of private grants for election processes after charities stepped up to fund underresourced election officials during the pandemic. In particular, Republicans have targeted grants from organizations backed by hundreds of millions dollars of donations from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
In April, Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a law prohibiting election officials from accepting private money to help run elections, saying it could weaken confidence in elections. Similar provisions have been enacted in Florida and Georgia this year.
And dark money raised for the review may be going to more than just paying the firms conducting it.
The Arizona state representative Mark Finchem, a strong supporter of the review and the “Stop the Steal” movement, claimed that his 501(c)(4) Guardian Defense Fund is “paying money for additional security at the site” in an interview with Steve Bannon on America’s Voice News.
Finchem is currently campaigning to be Arizona’s next secretary of state, and claimed he had talked to Trump about the 2020 election in an appearance on the Twitch stream of Redpill78, which the New York Times reported promotes QAnon conspiracy theories. His attorney previously represented Cyber Ninjas.
“Ironically, after outlawing transparent philanthropic funding of election administration, used to assist all voters, regardless of party, during a global pandemic, the Arizona senate now relies upon secret funding for their ‘audit’,” said David Becker, the executive director for the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a group that received funding from Zuckerberg and Chan last year.
Key individuals behind the dark money groups have also been using a network of Telegram channels to coordinate messaging and amplify each other’s content.
One of the main Telegram channels boosting the groups is Arizona Red Roots. Using Telegram and other messaging platforms, review proponents have quietly coordinated efforts and distributed “AZ Ground Troops Updates” detailing strategies pushing for the ballot review.
An April “AZ Ground Troops Update” document downloaded from Telegram lists a number of key players in the Arizona review, including Power of the Meme, a site dedicated to making memes to promote the Arizona review and “Demand a Forensic Kinematic Audit”.
In messages throughout March and April, organizers in the channel pushed followers to pressure the Arizona legislature to hire Jovan Pulitzer, a treasure hunter best known for inventing a cat-shaped device that allowed people to scan barcodes in magazines to find the product online. PC World magazine ranked it as one of the 25 worst tech products of all time.
Pulitzer has become a kind of folk hero among those who believe the election was stolen (he has his own song) and Telegram messages in the channel told users Pulitzer was the only person who could do a necessary audit.
“If New Hampshire uses Jovan + other auditors, why not AZ? Jovan, since Nov 2020, was the first and only one to propose auditing paper ballots in an ingenious and novel way – never proposed & never before done! And it is what we need for the best chance to find ballots pre-printed from China. Or ballots filled out by the same fraudulent person,” reads one message.
The effort appears to have been successful. Pulitzer’s technology is reportedly being used by those running the Arizona review to inspect the quality of ballot paper and search for watermarks – a process election officials have said is unlikely to detect fraud. Officials are also reportedly using the technology to look for bamboo fibers in ballots, an echo of a conspiracy theory Pulitzer has endorsed suggesting ballots were flown into Arizona from Asia.
Even some people involved in advising the review are skeptical of Pulitzer’s involvement.
“This guy is nuts,” John Brakey, an activist who is helping with the Arizona process, told the Guardian in May. “He’s a fraudster.”
Even as experts have warned of the dangers of the Arizona review, it has fast emerged as a model for similar efforts elsewhere. Trump on Friday called for the Pennsylvania senate to authorize a similar effort, just days after Mastriano and other lawmakers visited the Arizona count. Activists in New Hampshire unsuccessfully tried to get Pulitzer involved in a review of a local election there. And there are bubbling efforts in Michigan to conduct a “forensic audit” – language that mirrors what is being used to describe the Arizona effort.
Some of the firms and individuals conducting the review also stand to potentially benefit from a proliferation of similar efforts across the country.
A recently dismissed Michigan case that was promoted and fundraised for in the Arizona Telegram channels featured Cyber Ninja’s Logan as an expert witness. Another expert witness in the case was Benjamin Cotton, the founder of CyFIR, a digital forensics firm that is helping conduct the Arizona audit.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Matthew DePerno, raised around $300,000 for an “Election Fraud Defense Fund” to support the failed case in Michigan.
And while the amount of money raised through online fundraising platforms is publicly available, the total amount of money changing hands between each of the individuals and organizations involved in the efforts is subject to few disclosure requirements.
Fontes, the Arizona Democrat, said it was “wholly inappropriate” for the Arizona state senate not to disclose who was funding the effort.
“They have permitted this to happen, it happens under the authority of the Arizona state senate, this is senate president Karen Fann’s operation,” he said. “She can set whatever rules she wants to set. She has chosen secrecy. She has chosen to obfuscate. And she is trying to deflect responsibility for the lack of transparency.”