A completely unknown and unheralded operation called the “Cities Project” cropped up twice in government emails from 2020 in which the Center for Tech and Civic Life was administering its election grants — grants funded mainly by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg that would later spark enormous controversy to the point of being banned in dozens of states.

Although little is known about the Cities Project, its existence could be another important puzzle piece of how the political left maneuvered and operated — oftentimes hand-in-glove with some election offices across the country — in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. 

Even though the Cities Project appeared in emails dealing mainly with the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), the project was part of the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, or CSME.

The CSME is not a stand-alone nonprofit. Instead, it is a “fiscally sponsored” project of the New Venture Fund. The New Venture Fund, meanwhile, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit managed by Arabella Advisors, which the Atlantic called, “The Massive Progressive Dark-Money Group You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Emails show that Marc Solomon, a political consultant with the New York City-based group Civitas Public Affairs, worked as one of the lead strategists for the CSME in 2020. Even though he worked on behalf of the CSME, he was active in selectively inviting Democratic-leaning counties in Pennsylvania to apply for the grants offered by the CTCL.

On Aug. 20, 2020, Solomon emailed a staffer in Governor Wolf’s office, who was also acting as an elections advisor and county elections liaison with the Pennsylvania Department of State.

“I asked Joe Hill to reach out to you to organize calls with our expert elections team (Sam and Tiana), you, him, and the right folks in Montgomery County and Chester County for next week. He’s essentially going to be managing PA for the Cities Project on our end,” Solomon wrote.

At the time of his work on behalf of the Cities Project for the CSME, Joeseph Hill was employed as a consultant with the national firm Cozen O’Connor. He has a long Democratic resume in Pennsylvania, including staff work for U.S. Senator Bob Casey, but also campaign work on behalf of Hillary Clinton and Gov. Tom Wolf.

“Sam and Tiana” refers to Sam Oliker-Friedland, chief counsel with the CSME, and Tiana Epps-Johnson, the executive director of the CTCL.

I asked Joe Hill to reach out to you to organize calls with our expert elections team (Sam and Tiana), you, him, and the right folks in Montgomery County and Chester County for next week. He’s essentially going to be managing PA for the Cities Project on our end.

That email is one of dozens obtained by Broad + Liberty showing that although the election grants in Pennsylvania were touted as originating from the CTCL, the CSME did as much of or most of the administrative heavy lifting behind the scenes, raising issues about transparency and accountability.

Other emails obtained via the Right to Know Law show Hill was working with officials at the Department of State on a voting initiative with the 76ers. At the same time, Hill was working to coordinate many of the earliest CTCL grants distributed in Pennsylvania, in counties like Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware.

It is not known if Hill’s work on the 76ers project was for the Cities Project.

Also included in several of those emails is Kevin Mack. Broad + Liberty has previously detailed that Mack is a for-profit political consultant for Washington D.C.-based Deliver Strategies. Deliver Strategies works almost exclusively for some of the most high-profile Democrats in the country, and is closely aligned with numerous state and national labor unions.

In Mack’s online biography, which has been removed from the Deliver Strategies website sometime after mid-October of 2021, he boasted that his work on another project called “The Voter Project” had helped lead “the soft-side effort to win the swing state in 2020.” The Voter Project was directly involved in selectively inviting many of the counties in Pennsylvania for the earliest CTCL grants.

The Cities Project also popped up in a Wisconsin email (on page 55 of the link) in the earliest days of the CTCL grants. That email also shows that CTCL was deferring or coordinating some of its work to the CSME.

In an email dated Aug. 17, 2020, a top official in the CTCL emailed the chief of staff to the mayor of Green Bay.

The CTCL official introduced the chief of staff to the CSME’s communications director to develop an “advertising plan for November[.]”

The subject line of that email directly mentioned the Cities Project.

On its website, the CSME says it “aligns bipartisan, pro-voter campaigns in states across the country that modernizes the voting system, making elections more efficient and secure. Center for Secure and Modern Elections works directly with local partners and lawmakers who lead in-state activities.”

Nowhere on the CSME website does the organization detail what the Cities Project is, and the CSME (along with its parent, the New Venture Fund) did not return requests for comment. No press release or news reports mention the Cities Project.

Joe Hill and his employer, Cozen O’Connor, also did not return Broad + Liberty’s request for comment.

While very little information exists about the Cities Project online, two foundations published their 2020 contributions to the program.

The Blaustein Philanthropic Group gave $200,000 to the Cities Project, and the Joyce Foundation gave $600,000.

Hayden Ludwig, a senior investigative researcher for the conservative Capital Research Center says the Joyce Foundation is politically left.

“When he was a Senator, Barack Obama sat on the foundation’s board along with at least one future Obama administration alumnus, Valerie Jarrett, who has attended Democracy Alliance conferences,” Ludwig said. “The foundation is part of the Funders Committee for Civic Participation, a collection of major left-wing funders that bankroll get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drives in elections and get-out-the-count (GOTC) campaigns during each census.”

The Joyce Foundation did not return a request for comment. If the foundation is left-of-center, as Ludwig asserts, that alone is still not proof that the Cities Project was politically biased.

However, the discovery of the Cities Project raises more accountability questions about the entire CTCL grant project, given that it appears that the CSME did so much of the administrative work on the CTCL’s behalf. While the voting public was told repeatedly in the run-up to the 2020 election about the CTCL’s grants, the public was seldom told that another entity would be doing a majority of the administrative work.

If the CSME was running the Cities Project in conjunction with the CTCL’s election grants, most norms of accountability and transparency would demand that the project be explained, given that both the CTCL and CSME had such close cooperation with election offices.

In a CTCL-related lawsuit in Louisiana, the attorney general there has alleged the CSME was such an integral part of the CTCL grantmaking process that the suit named the CSME and New Venture Fund as defendants.

The lawsuit was originally dismissed but has been revived after a favorable appeal ruling in early April.

Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd@broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports@protonmail.com. @shepherdreports

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