RTM Controversy: Zuck Bucks, Conspiracy Theories, Leaked Emails and a $500,000 Private Grant

On Tuesday night the RTM will consider whether to approve a $500,000 grant to Greenwich’s Registrars of Voters from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit organization 501(c)(3).

A second “scholarship” grant totaling $9,600 would pay for the membership in the Alliance Program for the two years.

Throughout the week GFP received letters to the editor, including 52 people who signed a letter against the grant, and a letter signed by 74 people who support the grant.

Those letters were followed by a slew of emails to the entire 230 RTM members over the weekend, including some that originated from anonymous Proton email(s).

Those against the grant cautioned against “strings attached,” “bad optics,” “cans of worms,” and the ulterior motives of “Zuck Bucks,” with Zuck short for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $350 million to CTCL during the pandemic.

Those in favor of the grant urged fighting “disinformation,” “conspiracies” and “false narratives around CTCL and big tech.”

The Town was offered the grants in recognition of being selected by CTCL as a Center of Election Excellence in November 2022.

The grant is “to be used exclusively for the public purpose of planning and operationalizing safe and secure election administration infrastructure in the Town of Greenwich.”

The only restriction is that the grant be used by for the general purpose of supporting election infrastructure through funding “physical,” “technological,” and “human” components. (The grant agreement is part of the packet for RTM items 10 and 11).

The Center for Tech and Civic Life grant agreement lists how the funds may not be used:

On Saturday an anonymous Proton emailer contacted the entire RTM to share an email between Republicans Leora Levy and former State Rep Kimberly Fiorello in which Levy gives Fiorello talking points from the RNC chief counsel Justin Riemer to argue against the $500K grant.

Another anonymous proton email shared an email from Republican BET chair Dan Ozizmir to Ms Fiorello with a cc to BET Republicans Karen Fassuliotis and Leslie Tarkington:

Then, on Monday, RTC chair Beth MacGillivray wrote to all RTM members to criticize the anonymous email writer:

“Someone took it upon themselves to leak this communication anonymously without permission and without providing the full text.  By hiding behind anonymity and providing only a portion of the email, this person has engaged in a dishonest and unscrupulous conversation with the RTM. This anonymous conspirator attempted to paint Republicans as extreme.”

MacGillivray said Republican leaders in Greenwich sought feedback from the RNC because they had done, “extensive work towards safe, secure, trustworthy and inclusive elections.”

“It is our fiduciary duty as elected party leaders to be informed and to share this information with our local Republican leadership,” MacGillivray added, going on to share the talking points that were left out of the anonymous email:


Subject: RE: [External]Fwd: [Election Integrity Leaders:] New grant Ctcl $$$ in Greenwich

Date: January 5, 2023 at 5:31:41 PM EST

To: redacted

Cc:  redacted

Hi  redacted

Here are a few potential talking points to raise regarding the grant proposal:

  • No one doubts the registrar’s altruistic motives in applying for the grant funds that are being distributed by the Alliance for Election Excellence.
  • However, accepting private grant money to fund election administration is a bad idea and will result in an erosion of trust in Greenwich’s elections.
  • Following controversy surrounding election grant money distributed in the 2020 election, several states have severely restricted the practice and not just Republican ones. Democrats in both Virginia and Pennsylvania have taken action to restrict private grant funds.
  • In response to criticism about the 2020 efforts, Mark Zuckerburg, who contributed roughly $419 million in election grants mostly through Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), has announced he will no longer do so. 
  • Why has CTCL’s program been controversial?
  • One does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to be skeptical about this program.
  • Even NBC noted that in 2020 “Democratic-leaning counties received a disproportionate share of money in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania.”
  • The organization behind the grantor organization is CTCL. It was founded and is “run by Tiana Epps-Johnson, who previously helped run the New Organizing Institute, which The Washington Post called “the Democratic Party’s Hogwarts for digital wizardry.” (source) Epps-Johnson was also a fellow at the Obama Foundation. 
  • CTCL is funded by a network of “dark money” liberal groups who refuse to disclose their donors. However, IRS tax filings have shown that Arabella Advisors, an organization that has ties to high-level Democrat operatives including Democrat lawyer Marc Elias, contributed up to $24,829,000 to the organization in 2020 (source). Even the New York Times noted the organization had “liberal ties.” CTCL continues to operate in secrecy.
  • Accepting grant money from organizations who refuse to disclose the source of their funding runs squarely against the principle of transparency in our elections system where every candidate and political party has to disclose essentially every dollar they raise and spend to ensure the elections process is uncorrupted. Our elections process needs to be completely above reproach and funneling and relying on private money from organizations that are unquestionably funded and run by members of one political party is a recipe for disaster.
  • Any additional money needed to properly fund Greenwich’s elections should be provided by the city or state, not private actors who require the sharing of data to participate in their programs.   

Scott Walter – Capital Research Center

Another highlight of the controversy arose on Wednesday, when an invitation to a Zoom talk on Thursday by Scott Walter, president of Capital Research Center, was sent via the all 230-member RTM email address from Allyson Cowin.

In the About section of CRC, there is a video of Mr. Walter, who says, “We uncovered the Clinton Foundation’s dubious foreign funding years before the mainstream media noticed it. We’ve exposed labor unions, one of the nation’s most powerful special interests as they colluded with elected officials to trade votes for tax dollars. And, we’ve revealed how radical groups, funded by George Soros, hired rent-a-mobs to incite others to riot in Ferguson, Missouri. Our reporting helped lead to the bankruptcy of Acorn, a radical activist network that was repeatedly convicted of vote fraud.”

During his Zoom talk Thursday, Mr. Walter kicked off by saying, “I’m concerned because I would never want well-funded outsiders to mess with your local self-government.”

He urged against the flow of charitable money, which he said totaled $20 billion in 2018-19 election cycle, most of it “blue” or Democratic (78%) and only 22% “red” or Republican.

Referring to “Zuck Bucks,” Mr. Walter said in 2020, in battleground states, jurisdictions that received more charitable money saw Democratic votes surge more than the parts of the state. He said CTCL was founded by people who had been leaders at former The New Organizing Institute who had successfully trained thousands of Democratic organizers per year. He said the organization was referred to by a reporter at the Washington Post as “Democratic Party’s Hogwarts for Digital Wizardry.”

“Billionaires should not be putting money in and putting their thumb on the scale,” Walter said, adding that charities don’t limit the amount people can contribute and there are no limits on who may donate.

“A middle eastern oligarch with backward views on women’s rights and gay rights can’t contribute to a party, but they can contribute to the CTCL all they want,” Walter said.

“If you think that these incredibly partisan and effective partisan people just all of a sudden lost all partisan interest in elections, you can believe that, but I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you,” Walter said, adding that the CTCL “juiced” big-city turnout wins for the electoral college, but did not impact down ballot races. After the election, he said many states passed laws banning charitable money.

Mr. Walter said when a registrar or local official applies to be recognized as a Center for Election Excellence it is a “bait-and-switch.”

“Then they discover actually the Alliance for Election Excellence, a project of the CTCL, expects them to become members of the Alliance. You’re going to be adding your prestige to the Alliance, but then there are dues to be paid,” he said.

Walters said the Alliance’s membership dues are a second bait-and-switch because the Alliance frequently offers to provide a “scholarship” for membership as a way to get around the “Zuck Buck bans.”

During the talk, Betsy McCaughey questioned how the grant money might be spent in Greenwich.

“It seems to me when they talk about training…” she said.

“And mentoring,” Walter said.

“What they’re really talking about is getting local people to go into parts of Greenwich where maybe ‘under represented’ voters seem to live, how to appeal to them ahead of time, drive them to the polls, get them to fill out mail in ballots, expand the use of mail in ballots,” Mcaughey said.

“You are correct,” Mr. Walter said.

Andrew Winston – RTM District 12

Andrew Winston wrote to the all-230 RTM email essentially refuting the points made by Mr. Walter in his Zoom talk.

“Please don’t let cynicism, lack of trust, and fabricated controversy keep our town from getting better,” Mr. Winston said.

“The Big Lie has infected discussions down to the local level, making people think there’s something wrong,” Winston said.

“The producer of the ‘Zuckerberg rigged the election’ film, in his criticisms of CTCL says ‘whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s or George Soros’s or anyone else’s — their left-wing money cannot be brought in to help Democrats win these elections anymore.’ As the Anti-Defamation League and others have made clear, using Soros’ name (especially in isolation from many other funders) is a long-standing antisemitic dog whistle.”

Mr. Winston wrote that this type of unrestricted grant for operations is rare and highly sought after, and that the CTCL website lists 30 or so funders who have given money and were “…mostly large and mainstream foundation names (like Rockefeller Brothers Fund). There was an initial large grant from an organization funded by Mark Zuckerberg. CTCL gets 97% and four stars from Charity Navigator.”

He said Mr. Walter’s organization was “funded by the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil, and other far-right billionaire families.”

“Some RTM members brought CRC into town to ostensibly be unbiased on the topic,” Mr. Winston wrote. “They seem to be in coordination with a small group of activists, mostly led by a documentary film producer who has claimed that Zuckerberg rigged the election of 2020. CRC is also a known funder of climate denial ads.”

Further he said, the base complaint from the documentary and CRC is that Zuckerberg somehow influenced the outcome of the 2020 election.

“He funded efforts to help districts manage their elections in the face of vast changes in how we voted because of the pandemic,” Winston said. “Our election machinery, much like our other types of infrastructure, is underfunded. This money, by all reports, helped many districts, have a smoother election.”

Winston said CTCL was not only funding liberal districts.

“Every single election department in the USA was asked to apply for grant funding. CTCL awarded funding to all 2,500 applicants in 49 states,” he said.

Winston pointed out that the BET and RTM both have say over the use of funds, not CTCL. Also, that no top secret information was being shared by Greenwich’s registrars with CTCL.

“All data created by our registrars is public,” he said.

Winston said of the 21 states banning “Zuck Bucks,” 17 or 18 of them were ‘trifecta’ states – where both the governor and both houses are GOP run.

Winston said the opponents of the grant were intentionally creating doubt and confusion.

“This playbook has worked on climate issues as well,” he said.

Fred DeCaro III – ROV (R), Traci Carney – Assistant ROV (R), Mary Hegarty – ROV (D), Lynn Giacomo – Assistant ROV (D). Photo courtesy of the US Centers for Election Excellence

In the Registrars shared Q&A sheet with RTM members they note that this is not the first grant to the town from CTCL. The RTM approved a grant from the grantor in 2020 which was used for expenses associated with absentee ballots processing.

In the Q&A, the Registrars said the grants were unrestricted beyond the basic requirement that the funds be spent on election affiliated items of a physical, technological, or human resource-based need.

Like Mr. Winston, the Registrars also said the grantor absolutely does not get any special access to Town data, or other physical or technological access.

They said that to make sure there were “no strings attached,” they had sent a list of possible ways the grant might be spent (page 3). Items under discussion include using the funds to expand recruiting and retaining poll workers, creating web-based visualizations based on historical election results, replacement of electronic pollbooks (notebook PCs) which are in their 8th year of use, adding climate control to the equipment storage area, buying fireproof cabinets, buying equipment to enhance handicapped access at polling places.

Another possible area to spend the grant money is to pay for printers, security totes, election PCs to copy with future legislation on early voting.

In the November election a ballot question on whether to allow for an Early Voting amendment passed, and another way the grant might be spent would be to prepare to implement Early Voting.

Image: LWV Connecticut.

Asked about the donation to the grantor from Mr. Zuckerberg, the Registrars replied in their Q&A sheet: “In 2020, the grantor distributed funds to approximately 2500 election jurisdiction in 49 states ‘to support the administration of public elections during the COVID 19 pandemic.’ All jurisdictions who applied for grants received them including 59 towns in Connecticut, one of which was the Town of Greenwich.The recipients determined how best to spend the grant money without any outside influence.”

On Monday, via the all-230 email, RTM member and former RTC chair Dan Quigley wrote that his concerns about the grant had been allayed.

“My biggest concern was about data usage. Our Registrars have stated unequivocally that no data that is not already publicy available through their office will be made public due to the acceptance of this grant,” Quigley said. “With regard to how the grant funds will be used, our Registrars have supported BET and RTM oversight to that effect. The grant has also been approved by our Town Attorney after a thorough review.”

Quigley described a “disturbing trend” in the RTM.

“Never in my time on the RTM have I seen an organized group rely this much on disinformation and scare tactics to achieve its goals….This group has chosen our RTM as its own personal battlefield, putting its narrow self interests at the forefront of every issue it focuses on, and placing a premium on partisan victory instead of what is best for our community.”

Referring to the talk by Mr. Walter, Quigley complained about the use of the all 230-email, “to advertise a seminar at which the principle guest was from a far-right ‘think tank’ who, of course, does not support grants such as this.”

Lastly, he said he was concerned that, “divisive methods employed by this group put at risk the ‘non-partisan’ spirit on which our RTM is based.”

Fred DeCaro, Registrar’s Response

On Monday, Fred DeCaro, the Republican registrar of voters sent comments about the grant, saying:

“My counterpart Mary Hegarty and I belong to numerous organizations which are non-partisan, and non-profit, including the Registrars of Voters Association of CT (ROVAC), and the National Association of Election Officials.  In both of these organizations I have found individual members across the political spectrum.  In working with them, however, to produce training materials or advance legislation, I have found that the intent is always to be balanced and even-handed.

Likewise, as part of attending conferences, and reading the literature in the field, I have encountered CTCL and similar partner organizations many times.  I get their newsletter.  I’ve signed up for their free webinars.  At conferences, for instance, one of the hour-long seminars on the schedule might have a speaker from the grantor or partners such as The Elections Group, or from US Digital Response.  They are frequent guests and presenters.  I have never seen any overt or even implicit partisanship from the people encountered.  

Here is an upcoming conference in late February from the most prominent organization on the field, the National Association of Election Officials, headquartered in Katy, TX.  You will see CTCL and some of the partner organizations are all on the agenda offering workshops:  https://www.electioncenter.org/national-association-of-election-officials/events-calendar/2023/ECSW-Pasadena-2023-Draft-Agenda.pdf

Speaking specifically of the grantor, CTCL, we had a few people come to our office from the grantor and also from The Elections Group in September to discuss what was involved in working together.  In addition to myself and my counterpart, we had our assistants, and other Town employees and officials also participate in different parts of the discussions.  I felt comfortable with the conduct and attitude of everyone involved.  In some cases we discussed ways in which technology can assist with election administration.  In some cases we discussed ways in which CT needs to modernize pieces of its process.  In some cases we discussed what we like about CT’s process, and about Greenwich-specific things like how we send out surveys to our poll workers after each election asking for suggestions.  None of the conduct I saw went beyond ‘shop talk’ (almost six straight hours of it), and discussing how different states handle different parts of election administration.”

For those unable to attend Tuesday’s RTM meeting in person at 8:00pm at Central Middle School, here is the zoom link: https://www.greenwichct.gov/Calendar.aspx?EID=5074

Here is the link to Tuesday’s Call for the RTM meeting.