New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg attempted to fund Philly elections offices in 2020, emails show

Three months before Election Day in 2020, a Michael Bloomberg agent contacted the Philadelphia City Electoral Bureau and offered to provide millions of dollars to assist city employees with the election and to pay for communications and other expenses that the city may require.

The former mayor of New York City was himself a competitor in the Democratic presidential nomination contest that year, but dropped out in March after the Super Tuesday primary in early March, endorsing Joe Biden immediately after he was eliminated from the presidential race.

The result underscores the nature of donors – often in secret – trying to shower polling stations with money in the run-up to the final vote, especially as the pandemic and postal voting processes had disrupted standard voting schedules across the country and the Commonwealth.

However, in light of the post-election spate of private spending, several states, including Pennsylvania, have banned private grants to polling stations, such as those provided 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 aimed at favoring one candidate or party over another by leveraging voter turnout at select locations. Democrats countered that private funding, such as grants made available by the CTCL, has helped already-overwhelmed polling stations deal with the massive complexities created by the pandemic and the expected “fall surge” of 2020.

On August 7, Nick Custodio, an assistant commissioner in Philadelphia’s Office of City Commissioners, emailed Stanford politics professor Nate Persily, apparently continuing a conversation that had started elsewhere. The subject line of the email was simply: “Bloomberg[.]”

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“We just finished our CTCL scholarship a few hours ago. Do I have to bring you the Bloomberg thing tonight or can it wait until tomorrow afternoon?” Custodio wrote to Persily.

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

Hours later, Custodio walked away from just over $3 million. The first $2 million was spent on staff costs, while another half-million each was allocated to communications and “voting-by-mail consumables.”

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The city did not respond to a request for comment on whether it had accepted funds from Bloomberg. Questions sent to email accounts at and about which other cities, counties or states Bloomberg had approached for election funding were not answered. Persily also did not respond to requests for comment.

As Custodio alluded, the city had just submitted its $10 million grant application to the CTCL and already knew the grant was likely to be fully honored. The grant nearly doubled the city’s election budget.

In addition to his work as a professor at Stanford, Persily is active in the broader political arena, writing numerous op-eds about elections in places like that Washington Post and New York Times. In 2020, he also led the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, in which CTCL was a partner.

His emails to Custodio are also notable because they are another indication of how closely the CTCL and the Center for Secure and Modern Elections (CSME) have worked together on election grants. At least in Persily’s eyes, the two were so closely related that he merged them as the same project.

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After Custodio noted that he had finished writing the CTCL grant, Persily responded, “I understand that the CSME applications are fully approved.”

When Custodio informed Persily that Philadelphia had no contact with the CSME, Persily said, “Yes – CTCL works with CSME.”

As width + freedom previously reported, CSME is not a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It’s a project under the big umbrella of the Arabella network, which Atlantic Magazine titled “The Massive Progressive Dark Money Group You’ve Never Heard Of”.

Despite the fact that the CSME was a major driver of the CTCL grants, there were no news articles or press releases explaining the partnership between the two or informing the public that the CSME was a partner in the grants in the months leading up to the election was transparency issues.

In addition, CSME ran an operation called “Cities Project” which appears to be directly linked to the CTCL grants, but for which no online information exists. The only information about the Cities Project comes from government emails obtained through Open Records inquiries about the CTCL grants, as well as from some foundations that publicly stated that they had donated to the Cities Project.

While Bloomberg is known for funding its own political campaigns, the money it spends on other causes is sometimes even more influential, according to a report by Atlantic in January 2020.

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

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“Sometimes the impact of Bloomberg’s money was direct and visible; sometimes it was more subtle. It was never clearer than during his extension of the city’s tenure. 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.

Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at [email protected], or use his encrypted email at [email protected] @shepherdreports