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.
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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.”
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.
The city commissioner’s office responded to a request for comment, but only after this story was published.
“The city did not receive any funds from Mr. Bloomberg,” Custodio told Broad + Liberty. “We explored every opportunity to save Philadelphia taxpayers money and provide them with the greatest service. We will not be commenting further.”
Questions sent to email accounts at MikeBloomberg.com as well as Bloomberg.org 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.
Read More: Democratic-leaning counties selectively invited to apply for election grants, emails show
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.
Update: This article was updated from the original post to include a comment provided by Nick Custodio.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports