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Breaking down the ‘Zuckerberg 5′ in Wisconsin election report; CTCL derides allegations

Special Counsel Michael Gableman presents the findings of his office's investigation into the...
Special Counsel Michael Gableman presents the findings of his office's investigation into the 2020 election to Assembly members, on March 1, 2022.(WMTV/Michelle Baik)
Published: Mar. 2, 2022 at 5:19 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The organization behind the grants cited multiple times throughout the Wisconsin Special Counsel’s report rejected its allegations, citing legal decisions and the way the grants were awarded. The grants, coupled with other allegations, were cited by Special Counsel Michael Gableman on Tuesday when he recommended lawmakers seriously consider decertifying President Joe Biden’s victory.

“This so-called report from Michael Gableman rehashes many of the arguments made in more than a dozen frivolous lawsuits filed to smear the CTCL COVID-19 Response Grants program,” the Center for Tech and Civic Life said Wednesday in a response to NBC15 News.

The CTCL pointed to those multiple lawsuits challenging the awards and noted that “conservative, liberal, and two Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices” rejected the arguments. One of the judges, it added, dubbed the claims a “conspiracy theory.” U.S. District Judge William Griesbach, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, refused to block the grant money in October 2020 under a lawsuit filed by Kaardal on behalf of the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, in conjunction with the conservative Thomas Moore Society.

The judge said then that there was nothing in state law “that can be fairly construed as prohibiting the defendant Cities from accepting funds from CTCL.” The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on an appeal of that case that those who brought the lawsuit failed to identify any laws that would prohibit the grants. Kaardal again raised the issue in a federal lawsuit he filed in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, two Wisconsin Republican state lawmakers and others. That lawsuit sought to let state lawmakers in Wisconsin and other states allocate their Electoral College votes.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, appointed by President Barack Obama, dismissed the lawsuit and referred Kaardal to a court committee for discipline just for bringing the case. Kaardal has appealed that. In a third case, the Wisconsin Voters Alliance represented by Kaardal asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to overturn the election results for several reasons, including the grants. The court refused to take the case.

CTCL awarded grants to more than 200 local election offices in Wisconsin, including its five largest cities, and they were designed to help “election departments… facing an unprecedented challenge of administering safe and secure elections,” according to a statement released by the organization at the time.

A bulk of Gableman’s report focused on those five largest cities, which the report repeatedly described as Zuckerberg 5, a reference to Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg. A search of the 136-page report finds 137 instances of the authors using the term “Zuckerberg 5.” The Special Counsel’s Office alleges the CTCL and the five cities – Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine – embraced the term, and referenced a letterhead with the five cities seals.

A citation to the link corresponding with the allegation indicated that the seals may have been positioned next to the phrase Zuckerberg 5; however, it did not work in the copy provided to the media. A call to the Special Counsel’s Office to get an example went unanswered, save for a message that the voicemail had not been set up. NBC15 News also reached out to Speaker Robin Vos’ office on Wednesday morning and was told a representative would be able to pull it. As of 4 p.m. it was not made available. This story will be updated when it is.

The CTCL denied ever using the term internally in reference to the five cities in a statement to NBC15 News. A spokesperson for Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Katie Crawley, told us, “we have never used the term, nor is it in any City documents.”

The only mention of specific cities in Wisconsin other than those five receiving funds from CTCL was a section labeled “Other Entities Have Reported About CTCL’s Selective Funding to the Zuckerberg 5,” which points to studies by the Conservative-leaning Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and the Foundation for Government Accountability. From the former, the authors take a comparison to show that the five cities featured in the report received larger amounts on a per capita basis. The FGA citation lists five allegations by the organization, including one that said “More than 200 Wisconsin jurisdictions received ‘Zuckerbucks’ for the 2020 election, totaling more than $9 million.

The Special Counsel’s report argued the grants fell under the state’s definition of bribery because private money was used to help people vote in-person or via an absentee ballot. The bribery allegation was rejected as well by Rhodes-Conway, who called the accusations that the Dane Co. Clerk’s Office acted with a partisan bent or were bribed “patently ridiculous (and) “election departments… facing an unprecedented challenge of administering safe and secure elections.”

The CTCL’s response also indicated that, while the grants in Wisconsin ended up going to those five cities, any U.S. local election office in the country that played a role in the election could apply. It also noted that every eligible office that did apply was awarded money by the agency.

Grant Totals for ‘Zuckerberg 5′ (per CTCL)

CityCash Grant
Green Bay$1,245,706
Kenosha$862,779
Madison$1,271,788
Milwaukee$3,409,500
Racine$1,699,100

“Once applicants were verified as legitimate, they were approved for grant funds which had to be used exclusively for the public purpose of planning and operationalizing safe and secure election administration,” the statement continued.

In all, it said grants were awarded to 2,500 election departments in 49 states, with over half of its awards going to smaller communities with fewer than 25,000 registered voters.

The Special Counsel’s report accused the CTCL of coercing the five cities cited in his report – and none of the approximately 200 other Wisconsin election offices – through secondary grants that it states, “were not for purely altruistic purposes as “strings” were clearly attached.” (additional quotation marks were made by report authors) The authors listed the conditions of the secondary contract, which they write would require the election agencies to detail how they spent the money on election-related expenditures.

The report listed the four conditions investigators found as only using the election grants for “planning and operationalizing safe and secure election administration,” requiring the cities to show that was how the money was spent, not cut other election funding because it received the grant and giving the funds to another agency without approval by CTCL. Additionally, it asserts that the goals of reaching out to historically disenfranchised residents, among other voters, and encouraging an increase in in-person voting, early voting, and absentee voting, “matched that of the Biden-voter profile.”

Zuckerberg’s name became associated with the CTCL following a $250 million donation to the organization by the 37-year-old and his wife Priscilla Chan as part of their efforts to help election offices deal with ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Copyright 2022 WMTV. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this article.