Three people were arrested in Mississippi in the last two weeks in another chapter in the story of the harm done to our elections by so-called “Zuckbucks,” this time with alleged embezzlement and fraudulent spending.
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg poured millions into a nonprofit called the Center for Tech and Civic Life, or CTCL, in 2020. That nonprofit then gave more than $350 million in private funds to elections offices around the country. CTCL said its goal was to provide funding for the “safe administration” of elections during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Once the 2020 election was in the rearview, journalists and academics started turning over the stones of CTCL’s spending. What they found wasn’t pretty.
As The Federalist Editor-In-Chief Mollie Hemingway details in her book “Rigged,” CTCL focused its funding on Democratic counties (no surprise, given that CTCL’s leadership consisted of former Democratic staffers). While the money was supposed to be spent on pandemic-related items, Hemingway has written that much of it went to “measures that allowed elections offices to hire activists to work the election.”
That, of course, is just the spending we know about. CTCL “has been reluctant to share information about how its operation was run,” says Hemingway. Even when CTCL has described its spending, the Mississippi arrests show CTCL itself may not even know what they paid for or where it ended up.
Theft of Election Funding
Here’s more of the story. Several months ago, the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor started investigating allegations of fraud at the Hinds County Elections Commission, an office that received $1.9 million in CTCL grants. Agents eventually discovered that election commissioners purchased two 85-inch Samsung televisions that never made it into the commission’s building. The TVs were allegedly bought to allow election workers to socially distance and still watch the 2020 results, but instead the TVs went to the homes of private individuals, including one commissioner.
Thousands of dollars worth of personal protective equipment also walked away. That, too, was found at a private residence. Fake invoices — one by a local movie production company and the other by a hairdresser’s LLC — were submitted for sanitizing buildings, Covid testing, and voting machine audits. The work described in the invoices was never done, but the people submitting the invoices were paid.
The total loss due to fraud in this case will tumble into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, to no one’s surprise, evidence shows that the culprits submitted false paperwork to CTCL describing how they were spending Zuckerberg’s money.
Huge Risk of Fraud with Massive Funding
CTCL’s spending on elections is problematic for a variety of reasons, but the danger of financial fraud, like the kind discovered in Mississippi, hasn’t been discussed as extensively. When a private organization spends that much money that quickly, the risk of fraud is huge.
That risk skyrockets if the organization is not accustomed to handing out and then monitoring grants of this size. Again, according to Hemingway, CTCL’s budget before Zuckerberg arrived was a paltry $1.4 million in 2018. CTCL clearly was not ready to manage hundreds of millions of dollars. It appears they did not have the internal controls, the reimbursement procedures, or the property audit functions in place that could have prevented this kind of theft.
When the public hears about election fraud, it erodes their faith in government. The same is true for financial fraud. The damage is doubly painful when elections officials are caught stealing money. The profligate spending of Zuckbucks allowed that distrust to be sown.
If CTCL and the other private entities dumping money into elections cannot effectively prevent their money from being stolen, they should not be spending on elections. Many states have voted to ban private spending on elections, and the Mississippi fraud case gives states another reason to do so.