'Based on a lie': GOP's Facebook obsession threatens to starve local election offices of funding

Republican lawmakers across the country want to block cash-strapped local election offices from getting private funding to help administer elections, which election officials warn could cut off a vital lifeline.

At least 18 Republican-led states have banned or restricted the use of private funds for election offices, according to the right-wing think tank Capital Research Center, and Republican-led legislatures have passed similar legislation in six other states that were vetoed by Democratic governors. The push is part of a well-funded right-wing campaign by groups like Heritage Action for America, which has helped write many of the new voting restrictions imposed by Republican-led states. Some states have gone even beyond the Heritage recommendations, making it a misdemeanor or a felony for election officials to accept grants.

Private donations to election administrators proved crucial amid the pandemic after Congress provided relief funds during the primaries but rejected pleas from election officials to send more aid for the general election. Much of the private funding came from an election grant program from the Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which received $350 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple also donated more than $60 million to the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR), which provided grants for voter education to election officials in 23 states.

The Republican bills are "based on a lie," David Becker, the founder and executive director of CEIR, said in an interview. "They're based on the idea that somehow these donations were nefarious or created problems when in fact they solved problems. They helped Biden voters and Trump voters navigate the process."

Many election officials credited the programs with "saving" the election as local officials struggled to maintain adequate staffing and resources, noting that it was essential to preventing an "election meltdown." Philadelphia was able to buy new high-speed machines to help sort mail ballots. Coconino County, Arizona, was able to pay temporary staffers to help Native Americans register to vote. Chester County, Pennsylvania, was able to afford new ballot drop boxes and body cameras that employees wore to collect the ballots.

The money also helped election officials make in-person voting safer and manage a sudden influx of mail ballots. After former President Donald Trump lost, he and his allies were quick to blame his loss on the unprecedented rate of mail voting, despite research showing little if any partisan effect from mail voting expansion. Republicans have since decried so-called "Zucker bucks" and GOP lawmakers in more than a dozen states have banned private donations entirely, which could cut off a vital lifeline for local election offices.

Republicans have baselessly accused Zuckerberg of using the funds to help Democrats. Michael Gableman, who is leading a highly dubious investigation into Wisconsin's 2020 elections, claimed that in some cities "private Zuckerberg agents" effectively "took over the election." Right-wing groups have argued that the grants largely went to Democratic areas.

But in many cases, that was the result of Trump's own pre-election conspiracy theories. Many of the grants went to urban districts with large populations as they prepared for a huge increase in mail voting. Trump's fear-mongering about potential mail voting fraud, even though it is incredibly rare, meanwhile turned off rural Republican areas from casting ballots by mail entirely.

Both the CTCL and CEIR rejected the Republicans' allegations of partisan bias.

"I've been working with election officials for about a quarter-century and we offer grants to states to assist them in educating their voters and specifically for voter education, nonpartisan, to allow them to help voters navigate the challenges of voting during a pandemic," said Becker, a former Justice Department voting rights attorney who later led the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"As a nonpartisan organization backed by Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan officials, we are confident that these frivolous charges are without merit, and look forward to continuing this critical grant program in these unprecedented times," CTCL said in a statement.

CTCL on Monday announced that it will launch the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, a five-year, $80 million program that makes funding available to every election department in the country.

"The United States election infrastructure is crumbling," Tiana Epps-Johnson, the founder and executive director of Center for Tech and Civic Life, said at a TED conference this week in Vancouver, according to the Washington Post. "Election officials who serve millions of voters lack the basic technology they need to reliably do their work," she said. "It either doesn't exist or it's shockingly outdated."

Zuckerberg and Chan did not respond to a request for comment but spokesman Ben LaBolt told The New York Times on Tuesday that the couple would no longer donate to election offices, including the new CTCL initiative, and that they never intended for it to be a stream of funding for election administrators.

"As Mark and Priscilla made clear previously, their election infrastructure donation to help ensure that Americans could vote during the height of the pandemic was a one-time donation given the unprecedented nature of the crisis," LaBolt said. "They have no plans to repeat that donation."

The groups essentially stepped in to fill a void left by Congress. Lawmakers provided $400 million to help election officials during the 2020 primaries, even though the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that $4 billion was needed. Congress did not provide any additional funding for the general elections or in 2021.

"Election officials begged Congress and their state legislatures to provide adequate resources and funding for a historic and unusual and particularly high turnout and particularly difficult election as a result of the pandemic," Becker said. "And Congress and state legislatures failed to do that. As a result, philanthropy stepped in."

Congress earlier this year allocated $75 million to help election offices as part of a larger package. Becker said the amount was just a "tiny drop in the bucket."

"It really doesn't make much of an impact," he said. "That's literally less than a quarter per eligible voter in the United States."

The Brennan Center for Justice, in a report last month, estimated that it would cost more than $350 million to replace outdated polling place equipment. The Election Infrastructure Initiative, a coalition of election officials, nonprofits and others, estimated that it would cost about $49 billion over the next decade to modernize election administration and operations, including $2 billion to replace outdated voting machines, $1 billion to improve cybersecurity and nearly $1 billion to update voter registration systems.

Election officials say that Republicans who want to block private funds from elections should step up to provide taxpayer funds instead to ensure elections run smoothly and securely.

"Our local election officials delivered a secure election in 2020 in part because they had additional philanthropic funding. The best long-term solution is not to hope for last-minute funding, but regular funding from Congress," said former Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican, in a statement. "Large urban cities have infrastructure needs that smaller jurisdictions simply do not. Regular, ongoing funding from Congress over 10 years can set all election departments large and small up for safe, secure and successful elections."

Zuckerberg, who has denied any involvement in how the grants were distributed, also called for increased public funding of elections.

"To be clear, I agree with those who say that government should have provided these funds, not private citizens," he said in a statement ahead of the 2020 election. "I hope that for future elections the government provides adequate funding. But absent that funding, I think it's critical that this urgent need is met."

Even though the 2020 election and election integrity has dominated political rhetoric on both sides since Trump's loss, there appears to be little movement toward boosting funding for election offices. A recent MIT study found that the U.S. spends about as much on elections every year as it does to "maintain parking facilities."

"In 2020, we supported an election department in a small New England town replace their hand-crank ballot boxes they had been using to count votes since the early 1900s," Epps-Johnson said this week. "One was literally held together by duct tape."

But election offices don't just need an infusion of cash, Becker said. They need a "regular predictable stream of funds to allow them to plan out 10, 15 years into the future. You don't hire a staff member and then worry about whether you're going to be able to pay them the second year," he continued. "Election technology has a lifespan. You need to know when you're going to be able, or need, to buy new technology. You don't buy a laptop and think it's going to last through until they put you underground."

Not only are Republican lawmakers threatening to cut off vital funds for election offices to maintain their existing operations, some state legislatures are looking to foist new unfunded mandates on election administrators to prevent voter fraud, which many continue to maintain tainted the 2020 election despite extensive investigations, recounts, audits and lawsuits that have failed to turn up any evidence.

In some states, Republicans want to require hand counting of all ballots, which is much slower and less accurate than machine counting and would require a massive increase in staffing.

Republicans in key swing states like Nevada are pushing to require all ballots to be hand-counted, a process that is vastly time-consuming and much less accurate than machine counts, and would require a massive increase in staffing. Republicans in states like Arizona are pushing legislation that would require special paper for ballots to prevent fraud, adding additional costs to election offices without providing any additional funding.

"It's not just unfunded mandates, it's a reduction in budget," Becker said, noting that some states are threatening to impose fines on election workers who don't abide by new restrictions. "The fictional world in which some legislators live, where these mandates can be placed on election officials without additional funding and, in fact, with restrictions on additional funding, is very dangerous," he said.

But even blocking funds without additional mandates threatens to shutter polling places, reduce access to early voting or mail ballots, and create other potential pitfalls. Not to mention inflation: The cost of paper to print ballots has gone up by about 50% alone, according to the Washington Post, already resulting in shortages in states like Texas.

While most of the pressure has been on Congress to provide assistance to election administrators, Becker warned that it was important not to let state legislatures "off the hook."

"States want autonomy in elections, they want to have control over their own elections and they get very upset when it's perceived that the federal government is seeking to take control away from them," he said. "But if you want control, you also have responsibility — and with that responsibility comes the responsibility to pay for the necessary administration of elections."

'The coup attempt is ongoing': Ex-Trump lawyer John Eastman still trying to overturn 2020 election

Former Trump lawyer John Eastman is still trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election amid a legal battle with the House Jan. 6 committee over his role in the former president's failed effort to reverse his loss.

Eastman played a key role as a top adviser in Trump's scheme to block the certification of President Joe Biden's win and wrote a plan outlining how then-Vice President Mike Pence could supposedly reject legitimate electors from states won by Biden. Eastman's efforts have come under the scrutiny of the Jan. 6 committee, which subpoenaed his records related to the scheme. Eastman fought the subpoena before a judge last month ordered him to turn over documents after finding that he and Trump "more likely than not" committed federal crimes when they "corruptly attempted to obstruct" Congress.

But Eastman is not done trying to undo Trump's loss. He was one of several Trump allies who last month secured a two-hour private meeting with Wisconsin state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, to pressure him to "nullify" the 2020 election and "reclaim the electors awarded to Biden," which legal experts say is not possible, according to ABC News.

Eastman urged Vos to "decertify the election," according to the report. Jefferson Davis, a Wisconsin activist who also attended the meeting, told ABC that Eastman pushed Vos to start "reclaiming the electors" and move forward with "either a do over or having a new slate of electors seated that would declare someone else the winner."

Eastman did not comment on the meeting.

"By explicit request from Speaker Vos, that meeting was confidential, so I am not able to make any comment," he told ABC.

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Eastman previously worked with other Trump allies to push Wisconsin officials to decertify the state's election, writing an eight-page analysis last December claiming that if there was "acknowledged illegality" in an election then the result of the election could be nullified and the legislature could then choose new electors "as it sees fit," according to Rolling Stone.

After the March meeting, Vos reiterated that the election could not be decertified. He has nonetheless played a key role in ginning up election-related conspiracy theories in Wisconsin. He has pushed claims of widespread election fraud and hired election conspiracist Michael Gableman to lead a taxpayer-funded investigation into the 2020 race. Gableman, who spoke at a pro-Trump "Stop the steal" rally before he was hired, last month presented a preliminary report echoing numerous debunked conspiracy theories and called on the legislature to decertify the results, even as Vos and legal experts explained there was no legal mechanism to do so. Gableman also called for the prosecution and possible imprisonment of election officials who refused to cooperate with his probe. A judge last month found Vos in contempt of court for refusing to release records from Gableman's investigation. Vos last week released 20,000 pages of previously-deleted emails showing extensive contact with election conspiracy theorists who were seeking ways to undo Trump's loss.

Eastman has also been active in other states. He joined a group of Colorado election deniers in February for an "emergency town hall meeting" at which participants baselessly accused Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, of participating in an election fraud conspiracy," according to ABC News. Eastman bragged at the meeting about his role in election lawsuits in Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin, accusing those who oppose the effort of "pure evil."

Eastman has previously said he met with Trump allies at the Willard Hotel one day before the Capitol riot, where the Republican's supporters convened a "war room." He was among the speakers at Trump's "Save America" rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, shortly before the Capitol assault began.

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Trump has also pushed Wisconsin to decertify the 2020 election.

"Speaker Vos should do the right thing and correct the Crime of the Century — immediately!" the ex-president said in a statement last month. "It is my opinion that other states will be doing this, Wisconsin should lead the way!"

Trump has been in contact with "multiple" people working on the effort, according to ABC, and receives "regular updates" from MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has sunk millions of his own money into pushing widely-debunked election claims.

"The coup attempt is ongoing," tweeted journalist Christopher Ingraham. "I hope I'm wrong, but all signs point to 2024 being a massively destabilizing event that nobody is preparing for, aside from the coup plotters."

Radio host and Salon contributor Dean Obeidallah called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to act to prevent the hijacking of democracy, echoing the growing frustrations of Biden and members of the Jan. 6 committee over the Justice Department's reluctance to pursue charges against Trump and his inner circle.

"The COUP is not over," he wrote, "and it will NEVER be unless Trump and his co-conspirators are prosecuted."

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'Really stupid or really corrupt': State Department reveals Trump’s foreign gift records are missing

The Trump administration failed to provide records of gifts that former President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials received from foreign governments in 2020, according to the State Department.

The State Department in a report set to be published in the Federal Register this week said that the Executive Office of the President did not turn over information about gifts that Trump and his family received from foreign leaders in 2020. The report also said that the General Services Administration (GSA) similarly failed to provide information about gifts received by Pence and White House aides. The department said it requested the missing information from the GSA and the National Archives and Records Administration but was told that "potentially relevant records" were restricted, according to the report.

The revelation comes amid a slew of reports about the Trump administration's handling of sensitive materials that are governed by federal law or the Presidential Records Act, which requires official documents and gifts to be preserved by the government. The National Archives earlier this year retrieved 15 boxes of materials that were improperly removed from the White House, including what Trump once described as "love letters" from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Some of the documents were classified or labeled "top secret," according to the archives, while others had been torn up and had to be taped back together. The House Jan. 6 committee is also investigating a gap of nearly eight hours in Trump's phone records on the day of the Capitol riot.

"It's flagrant and it looks terrible," Richard Painter, the former ethics chief in the George W. Bush administration, told The New York Times of the missing gift records. "Either it was really stupid or really corrupt."

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Federal law requires each federal agency to submit a list of gifts worth more than $415 received from foreign governments to the State Department. Though Trump's travel was limited in 2020 due to the pandemic, he flew to India and Switzerland, where he received a bust of Gandhi and a sculpture of Gandhi's "three monkeys" metaphor, among other items. He also hosted more than a dozen foreign leaders at the White House.

"The only reason you don't keep the perfunctory records that every administration is readily equipped to keep is because you intend to violate the law," argued former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance, a law professor at the University of Alabama.

The State Department report said that the Office of the Chief of Protocol, which was run by a Trump appointee, failed to ask the White House for a list of Trump's gifts before he left office and the White House did not turn one over. "As a result, the data required to fully compile a complete listing for 2020 is unavailable," the report said in a footnote, adding that there had been a "lack of adequate recordkeeping pertaining to diplomatic gifts" going back to Trump's first year in office.

A $5,800 bottle of Japanese whiskey given to Mike Pompeo has gone missing, while white tiger and cheetah furs gifted to the Trump White House turned out to be fakes.

The State Department's inspector general revealed in November that tens of thousands of dollars in gifts given to Trump administration officials had gone missing, including a $5,800 bottle of Japanese whiskey given to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a commemorative gold coin received by another department official. The Times also reported last year that Trump administration officials had kept white tiger and cheetah furs gifted to the White House by Saudi Arabia, potentially running afoul of the Endangered Species Act, though they were ultimately turned over to the Interior Department (which determined they were fake). The administration also failed to disclose that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner received two swords and a dagger from the Saudi government, though Kushner ultimately paid $47,920 for them and other gifts a month after Trump left office, according to the Times.

Painter told the Times that the failure to disclose foreign gifts violates the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution, which makes it illegal to accept unapproved gifts from foreign officials. But Painter acknowledged that the emoluments clause is "toothless and has no criminal or civil penalties," according to the Times, making it difficult to hold a former federal official accountable.

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Trump could still face legal trouble from his administration's handling of materials. The House Oversight Committee is investigating the removal of classified materials to Mar-a-Lago, as well as other reports that Trump ripped up sensitive documents and may have flushed documents down a toilet in the White House residence. The Justice Department is also investigating the removal of the classified documents.

The House select committee investigating Jan. 6 meanwhile has increasingly focused on the gap in the White House phone logs, which came during the period when Trump supporters stormed and invaded the Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of his election loss.

The Times reported on Sunday that the panel has concluded there is enough evidence to make a criminal referral against Trump to the DOJ but members of the committee are split on doing so over concerns that it might make the investigation appear overly partisan. A federal judge overseeing a case related to records sought by the committee found last month that Trump "more likely than not" had violated federal laws in his post-election scheme.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the vice-chair of the committee, told CNN on Sunday that the committee has not made a final decision on a DOJ referral but acknowledged that the panel believes Trump violated federal law.

"I think that it is absolutely the case, it's absolutely clear that what President Trump was doing, what a number of people around him were doing, that they knew it was unlawful. They did it anyway," Cheney said. "I think what we have seen is a massive and well-organized and well-planned effort that used multiple tools to try to overturn an election."

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Congressman says Trump call log gap 'suspiciously tailored' as Jan. 6 panel weighs 'criminal referral'

The House committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot has "intense interest" in the gap in former President Donald Trump's call log, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said Sunday as the panel weighs whether to issue a criminal referral against Trump to the Justice Department.

Raskin, a former Trump impeachment manager who sits on the committee, told CBS News on Sunday that the nearly eight-hour gap in Trump's White House phone logs on Jan. 6 covered the period when the Capitol was under siege. Trump made publicly reported calls during the time period and the committee has been able to piece together some of Trump's activities throughout the day but is still missing information.

"It's a very unusual thing for us to find, that suddenly everything goes dark for a 7-hour period in terms of tracking the movements and the conversations of the president," Raskin said.

"We are aware of other phone calls that took place during that time that included the president. But we have no comprehensive, fine-grained portrait of what was going on during that period," he added. "And that's, obviously, of intense interest to us."

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Axios reported last week that Trump's executive assistant Molly Michael, who kept track of his unscheduled calls, was out most of Jan. 6 for personal reasons, though the White House struggled with spotty record-keeping throughout Trump's tenure.

Asked if the gap in the call log could be explained by simple incompetence, Raskin said that the panel was taking that into consideration but "it does seem like the gaps are suspiciously tailored to the heart of the events."

The Washington Post and CBS News first reported last week that the White House call logs turned over the Jan. 6 committee had a 7.5-hour gap between 11:17 am and 6:54 pm on Jan. 6, drawing comparisons to the infamous 18.5-minute gap in former President Richard Nixon's White House recordings during the Watergate scandal. The call log does not include publicly reported calls Trump had that day with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. The committee is investigating how Trump communicated that day, including whether Trump used disposable "burner phones." Trump denied that he even knew what burner phones were, though his former national security adviser John Bolton said he had used the term before.

A committee member told the Post and CBS News that the panel is investigating whether the gap is part of a "possible coverup."

The committee has no power to prosecute anyone and can only make referrals to the Justice Department. Members of the panel have been increasingly frustrated with Attorney General Merrick Garland and the DOJ's handling of its criminal referrals. Though the DOJ indicted former Trump strategist Steve Bannon for contempt of Congress after he refused to cooperate with the investigation, the department has not acted on the House's referral against former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows. The committee last week also voted to advance criminal referrals against former Trump aides Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino for stonewalling the probe.

The committee is also weighing whether to issue an unprecedented criminal referral against Trump himself, according to Politico. But Democrats on the committee say such a move would have "no substantive value."

"Our job is … to look at the facts and circumstances around what occurred. The judge's ruling certainly indicates that, in his opinion, the president had something to do with what occurred," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the panel, told Politico. "So we'll make a decision at some point as a committee."

But other members pointed to federal Judge David Carter's ruling last week finding that Trump "more likely than not" violated federal laws in his effort to overturn his election loss, calling his effort to block the certification of President Joe Biden's win on Jan. 6 a "coup in search of a legal theory."

"A referral doesn't mean anything," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the committee, told Politico. "It has no legal weight whatsoever, and I'm pretty sure the Department of Justice has read [last week's] opinion, so they don't need us to tell them that it exists."

Fellow member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., agreed that a formal criminal referral may be unnecessary.

"Whether we make a referral or not, I think that as the judge pointed out, there is credible evidence that the former President is engaged in criminal conduct," he said. "And I don't think that can be ignored by the Justice Department."

Raskin stressed that it is more "critical" that "all the information comes out" to the public.

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Some legal experts also worry that a criminal referral could face blowback.

"A formal criminal referral from Congress in this situation could backfire. The Justice Department's charging decisions should not be influenced by political pressure, and that's how this might look," Ronald Weich, a University of Baltimore law professor and former Obama-era DOJ official, told Politico. "A referral could make it harder for the Department to prosecute."

The White House has tried to stay out of the matter as well, according to the New York Times, even as Biden has privately told his inner circle that he believed Trump "was a threat to democracy and should be prosecuted." Though Biden has never expressed his frustrations directly to Garland, according to the report, he has privately said that he wants his attorney general to "act less like a ponderous judge and more like a prosecutor who is willing to take decisive action over the events of Jan. 6."

The Justice Department in recent months has expanded its criminal investigation beyond those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, issuing subpoenas seeking information on Trump allies who funded and organized the rally ahead of the riot and whether any other government officials were involved in the "planning or execution of any rally or any attempt to obstruct, influence, impede or delay" the certification of election results.

It's unclear whether the latest step will yield more high-profile prosecutions or even DOJ scrutiny of Trump himself but Judge Carter in his decision warned that it would be a mistake not to hold those responsible for the riot accountable.

If Trump's "plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution," Carter wrote. "If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself."

GOP congresswoman tells rally that Donald Trump 'caught Osama bin Laden'

Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., falsely claimed on Saturday that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind September 11 attacks, was "caught" by former President Donald Trump, even though the terrorist leader was assassinated by U.S. forces during the Obama administration.

"Well, President Trump was in office. We didn't have a war and I think he made three peace treaties," she said this past weekend at a rally in her home state. "Caught Osama – Osama bin Laden and Soleimani, Al Baghdadi. And this president is weak. And I'll tell you weakness breeds aggression. We need strength."

"We need somebody who will stand up for America and put America first again like President Donald J. Trump did when he was in office," McClain added.

Both Qasem Soleimani, the ex-Iranian general, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former Iraqi leader of ISIS, were killed as a result of military directives issued under Trump. However, bin Laden was killed by an Obama-led raid back in 2011, while Trump was still hosting his signature NBC reality show "The Celebrity Apprentice. At the time, Biden, who was serving as vice president under Obama, opposed the raid, deeming it too risky.

Apart from her claims about bin Laden, McClain bandied a number of other lies about America's economy.

For one, the Michigan lawmaker remarked that unemployment is experiencing a "40-year high," a claim that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, Biden steered the country through a record drop in unemployment, from 6.2% when he took office to 3.9% in January of this year. Under Trump, by contrast, employment reached 14.7% at the height of the pandemic, the highest ever recorded since the Depression era.

McClain also suggested that American employers are facing a "labor shortage," a Republican talking point that was often attributed to what the GOP felt were overly generous unemployment benefits in 2020. But according to an extensive report by a senior Glassdoor economist Daniel Zhao, employers are by and large failing to provide adequate pay and work conditions to attract the amount of talent they're seeking.

"I would say labor shortage is kind of a tricky term because it does imply that there aren't workers available," Zhao told Insider. "And what we do know is that there are a significant number of workers on the sidelines who would be willing to come back to work if the conditions were right."

Betsy DeVos is back — and her family is flooding Ron DeSantis with cash

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her family have donated more than $280,000 to back Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' re-election effort amid his crackdown on discussions of race and sexual orientation in schools.

DeVos, who served four years as former President Donald Trump's education chief, personally contributed $5,500 to a super PAC backing DeSantis' re-election bid last month, according to state campaign finance records. Her husband, Dick DeVos, the former chief executive of Amway, contributed more than $80,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis super PAC last year. Their son, Rick DeVos, contributed $2,500 directly to DeSantis' campaign, as did their grandson Dalton DeVos and niece Olivia DeVos. Dick DeVos' brother Daniel and his wife Pamela also kicked in more than $70,000 to the Friends of DeSantis super PAC and his other brother Douglas also contributed more than $60,000. Dick DeVos' sister Suzanne Cheryl DeVos added another $50,000.

The DeVos family, which also owns the NBA's Orlando Magic, donated more than $200,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC during the Florida governor's 2018 campaign. The Michigan-based DeVos clan, with their extensive conservative connections, have showered far-right Republicans with campaign cash for years, contributing more than $82 million to political causes since 1999, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, though some estimates put that number at closer to $200 million.

The former secretary and other members of her family have been deeply involved in the "school choice" movement, pushing to shift public education funds to private and charter schools, and have promoted efforts to use the country's schools to "advance God's kingdom." DeSantis, meanwhile, quickly pushed for a plan to use taxpayer money to fund private and religious school tuition to expand "school choice" options shortly after taking office in 2019. DeVos touted the plan while part of the Trump administration, tweeting that she "completely" agrees.

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DeSantis also appointed former state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, an ally of far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who had no background in education, as the state's education commissioner. Fedrick Ingram, the president of the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, decried Corcoran as a "Betsy DeVos clone" after he spent his time in the legislature pushing school choice and charter school funding and decried teachers' unions as "repugnant" and "evil" for objections to shifting taxpayer funds from private schools to charter schools. Critics also accused Corcoran of a conflict of interest because his wife Anne is the chief executive of a charter school who has worked with conservative groups like Hillsdale College to influence the state's education curriculum.

After the pandemic hit, DeVos and Trump pushed for a rapid reopening of schools in the summer of 2020. DeSantis and Corcoran jumped at Trump's demand, issuing an order to keep all schools open five days a week. The state last year sought to punish school districts that required students to wear masks in the classroom.

"The Michigan-based DeVos clan, with their extensive conservative connections, have showered far-right Republicans with campaign cash for years"

Critics say DeVos is seeking to expand her successful effort to shift money away from public schools to for-profit and private schools in Michigan, where her family has donated more than $58 million at the state level as the state's education rankings have plummeted. John Austin, the former president of the Michigan State Board of Education, previously told Rolling Stone that the family's efforts have done "tremendous damage to learning outcomes, particularly for poor and minority kids in Michigan."

Since then, DeVos has turned her focus to "parental rights" — a catchall that covers conservatives' fight against "wokeness," "critical race theory," and the "1619 Project." The effort has led to bans on books on race by authors of color and discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms, as well as the firing of school administrators and librarians.

DeSantis has been among the Republican Party's leaders in pushing so-called "academic transparency" legislation touted by DeVos. The governor just signed into law legislation critics decried as a "Don't say gay" bill, which bans schools from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in some classrooms and allows parents to sue school districts over potential violations.

Two LGBTQ advocacy groups, as well as students and parents, on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit arguing the Florida law is an "unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence and erase LGBTQ people in Florida's public schools." The lawsuit alleges that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments and Title IX protections.

"It seeks to do so by imposing a sweeping, vague ban covering any instruction on 'sexual orientation and gender identity,' and by constructing a diffuse enforcement scheme designed to maximize the chilling effect of this prohibition," the lawsuit says.

"DeVos is seeking to expand her successful effort to shift money away from public schools to for-profit and private schools"

This effort to control young minds through state censorship -- and to demean LGBTQ lives by denying their reality -- is a grave abuse of power," the complaint said. "The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that LGBTQ people and families are at home in our constitutional order. The State of Florida has no right to declare them outcasts, or to treat their allies as outlaws, by punishing schools where someone dares to affirm their identity and dignity."

DeSantis' office pushed back on the lawsuit, arguing that the complaint erroneously claims that a person has a right to instruct another person's child about sexuality or gender and that state employees can craft their own unique curriculum for elementary school classrooms. DeSantis' communications director Taryn Fenske said the law "does not chill speech – instead it returns speech on these topics to parents."

"This lawsuit is a political Hail-Mary to undermine parental rights in Florida. Unsurprisingly, many of the parties to this suit are advocacy groups with publicly stated political agendas," Fenske said in an email to Salon. "This calculated, politically motivated, virtue-signaling lawsuit is meritless, and we will defend the legality of parents to protect their young children from sexual content in Florida public schools," she added.

DeSantis last year also signed a law further expanding the state's school vouchers program, directing $200 million to allow tens of thousands of families with incomes upwards of $100,000 to qualify for income-based scholarships intended to help children living in poverty. The law also weakened oversight for the program. The Florida Education Association said after the signing that "draining money from public education to fund unaccountable private institutions is a betrayal of the 90 percent of students who are in public schools." DeSantis defended the bill as a way for "working families" to "have the ability to get their kids into the school of their choices."

DeSantis is also pushing a bill titled the "Stop W.O.K.E. Act," which aims to ban the teaching of so-called "critical race theory," which DeSantis described as teaching "our kids to hate our country or hate each other." Though there is little evidence that critical race theory, which examines systemic racism in law and society, is actually being taught in public schools in Florida or elsewhere, conservatives like Devos and others have sought to crack down on certain race-related education. DeVos last year decried critical race theory as "indoctrination."

Critics linked DeSantis' education crackdown to donations from the DeVos clan and other deep-pocketed conservatives ahead of his re-election battle.

"While millions of Floridians are struggling to make ends meet from rising costs and a pandemic that Ron DeSantis has ignored, he is focused on his quixotic presidential bid and pleasing his billionaire backers," Aidan Johnson, a spokesperson for the Democratic PAC American Bridge, said in a statement to Salon. "He cares more about catering to extremists within the Republican Party than keeping Floridians safe."

Trump-loving Nevada Republican preparing 'voter fraud' challenges — 220 days before election

Nevada Republican Adam Laxalt, a candidate for U.S. Senate in this year's midterms, is already "vetting" outside groups to challenge supposed "voter fraud" in his election — roughly 220 days before it happens.

Laxalt, who was branded by local media as the "Nevada version of Rudy Giuliani" after leading Donald Trump's failed post-election legal challenges in the state, first began discussing "lawsuits we can file to try to tighten up the election" in September of 2021, claiming that the 2020 race had been "stolen" from Trump. Now Laxalt says he is fielding offers from outside groups to create "election observer" teams and lay out a legal strategy, even before he has even won the Republican primary.

"I don't talk about that, but we're vetting which group we think is going to do better," Laxalt told a voter at his campaign headquarters in an audio recording obtained by The New York Times.

Laxalt has falsely claimed that the only reason that Trump's legal challenges failed in the state was because they were filed too late. "The [Trump] campaign was late and the [Republican] party was late," he said. "So, it's just different now. There's a lot of groups that are saying there's election fraud."

In fact, Trump's legal challenges failed in Nevada because there was no evidence of any improprieties that could have affected the outcome of the election. Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cagavske investigated Republican claims of voter fraud and found no evidence to corroborate the allegations, just as election officials have found no evidence to back Trumpworld's widespread voter fraud claims in any other state (which has surely not been for a lack of trying). A Nevada court similarly found no evidence "that the 2020 general election in Nevada was affected by fraud."

Laxalt at his campaign office said that he expects to have support from the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, who now works at the right-wing Conservative Partnership Institute, a group that seeks to move congressional Republicans even further to the right. Laxalt vowed that he would use donor funds from his campaign to hire a legal team if no outside groups can "do this right."

Despite Laxalt's claim on the surreptitious recording that he doesn't "talk about" his strategy, the Trump-endorsed Republican has repeatedly bragged to allies and supporters that he plans to launch legal challenges months before anyone votes.

"I'm working with a few other groups now; we have to have a multipronged program to do our best to secure this election," Laxalt told former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka during an interview on Gorka's show in January.

Federal law prohibits candidates from coordinating directly with independent expenditure groups, so it's unclear who Laxalt might be "working with."

Laxalt also appeared on former Trump strategist Steve Bannon's podcast that same month. Bannon asked the candidate how he would "make sure they don't steal a Senate seat from us."

"There's a lot of groups that have raised a ton of money" to challenge the 2022 election, Laxalt replied. "My job over the next few months is to figure out which is the best group to work with; which is the group that we have the most confidence in. And we need an election integrity plan. We're putting that together now. Unfortunately, when you're running for U.S. Senate, it is really, really hard to also be in charge of that kind of effort. And so we need people to step up."

Laxalt's campaign did not respond to Salon's request for comment. He told the New York Times in a statement that "every voter deserves more transparency and to be confident in the accuracy of their election results, and I will proudly fight for them."

Laxalt is the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican primary, leading his nearest rival by nearly 40 points in recent polling. In the fall, he will presumably face Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic incumbent, in what will likely be a very close race. Masto's campaign recently called out Laxalt for "peddling Trump's Big Lie" throughout the race so far.

"Now he's sinking even lower by attempting to overturn this election before a single ballot has been cast," campaign spokesman Josh Marcus-Blank said in a statement. "Nevadans rejected Laxalt last time because they don't trust him, and this is further proof that he is only out for himself." (Laxalt, the state's former attorney general, ran for governor in 2018, losing to Democrat Steve Sisolak.)

Laxalt also suggested during an interview with OAN that he would investigate the 2020 election if he is elected to the Senate despite the fact that countless investigations, audits and recounts have turned up absolutely zero evidence of fraud.

"You know, it's funny because I'm always getting pushed to kind of drop what happened in the elections ... and I simply refuse to move," Laxalt said ,after being asked whether he would "investigate what happened Nov. 3" [of 2020].

Laxalt's nonstop focus on nonexistent voter fraud underscores how firmly the Republican Party has embraced Trump's lies, even though they failed to affect any election outcome and ultimately led to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Trump's record-setting second impeachment. Trump's campaign filed 60 legal challenges after the election and lost 59 of them, the only exception being a Pennsylvania case over a state-ordered extension for mailed ballots, which had no effect on the outcome.

It also makes clear how important the fantastical narrative about "voter fraud" in the 2020 election has become to Trump and his core supporters. Last week Trump blasted far-right Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who was accused of helping organize the Jan. 6 march before the riot, as "woke" after Brooks told supporters it was time to move on from the 2020 election. Trump rescinded his endorsement of Brooks in the Alabama U.S. Senate primary, which may have more to do with the fact that Brooks was trailing badly in polls and had difficulty raising money.

"No top Nevada Republican has raised more doubts about the state's elections system" than Laxalt, NBC News reported last month, citing Laxalt's attempts to cast suspicion on the election results in Las Vegas while speaking to supporters in rural areas of the state. (The Las Vegas metro area accounts for roughly 90% of Nevada's population.)

"I understand the rurals feel like: 'You know what? Las Vegas keeps taking these elections, and as long as that's happening, what vote do we have? What say do we have?'" Laxalt said during a speech in Winnemucca last October, before assuring rural Republicans that their vote would count. "Well look, each election is through each particular county's voter registrar. Your votes are going to count," he said. "Your votes are going to matter. And so you have to vote. We're going to have to deal with Las Vegas, and we're going to work on a plan for that."

During another speech he told supporters in Elko County that their "elections are legitimate," unlike those in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.

"I do think votes count here. I do think votes count in at least 15 counties," he said during another speech in October.

Dan Kulin, a spokesman for Clark County's registrar, told NBC that Laxalt was "repeating false allegations that have been disproven and rejected by the courts and investigations."

Democrats slammed Laxalt for suggesting that voter fraud only happened in more diverse urban areas. Trump similarly focused his legal challenges on urban areas with large Black populations in his election challenges in Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

"Laxalt is arguing there was only voter fraud in urban areas with Democratic voters," Andy Orellana, a spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Victory campaign, said in a statement, "showing there is truly no bottom for this cynical, failed politician."

Laxalt, who is the grandson of former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt and the son of former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, served one term as the state's attorney general before losing his bid for governor.

Laxalt held a fundraiser with Trump last month at Mar-a-Lago and has also sought to downplay the Capitol riot. He told the Associated Press in February that he believes "very few" people who broke laws that day should be prosecuted, accusing Democrats and the media of overhyping the insurrection.

"What the media and their left-wing allies have done to weaponize this against Republicans and Trump voters is reprehensible," he said. "This issue is not in the top 100 of issues that matter to ordinary Nevadans. Voters will not be fooled by this in November 2022."

Although Laxalt has largely tried to avoid discussing the Capitol riot in public comments, he has described Jan. 6, 2021, as a dark day — because that was the day Donald Trump's Twitter account was banned.

In a September interview with former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn on his podcast, Laxalt referred to Jan. 6 as "that fateful day in January when they pulled him off of social media and pulled him off of Twitter. People felt that in their stomach: 'Oh my god, they can cancel a former president of the United States.'"

Marcus-Blank, a spokesperson for Masto's campaign, criticized Laxalt for "downplaying" the Jan. 6 attack, calling him "Trump's top lackey in Nevada," and saying he helped "spread the Big Lie that fueled the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and law enforcement." The statement concluded by describing Laxalt as "a sleazy, corrupt politician who will do anything to stay in Trump's good graces."

Sotomayor torches 'unprecedented' Supreme Court ruling that could gut protections for Black voters

The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with Wisconsin Republicans in a lawsuit over the number of Black-majority districts in the state, raising concerns that the court could gut Voting Rights Act protections.

In an unsigned ruling, the court rejected a challenge from congressional Republicans over a new congressional map adopted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that had been proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. But the court issued a second unsigned ruling overturning the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to also adopt a state legislative map proposed by Evers.

Last year, Evers rejected a legislative map drawn by the Republican-led legislature that maintained the GOP's outsized advantage following the party's aggressive 2011 gerrymander. The matter went to the state Supreme Court, where a bipartisan majority approved maps proposed by Evers. The governor's maps still maintained a Republican advantage in the legislature but increased the number of Black-majority districts from six to seven. The Republican map aimed to shrink the number of Black-majority districts to five. Evers argued that the additional district was needed to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects against voting discrimination, while Republicans argued that it constituted an illegal "21st-century racial gerrymander."

The state Supreme Court allowed the map to stand because it best complied with the court's criteria for the new maps, including a requirement that they not depart too much from existing district maps. In the majority opinion, Republican Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote that the court was not "certain" that the additional district was "required" but said there were "good reasons" to believe it was. He added that reducing the number of Black-majority districts, as Republicans wanted, would illegally dilute the power of Black voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court's Wednesday ruling sent the case back to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, ruling that the court did not consider carefully enough whether the Voting Rights Act's protections for minority voting power required an additional Black-majority district. In its unsigned opinion, the court found that the state Supreme Court failed to consider "whether a race-neutral alternative that did not add a seventh majority-Black district would deny Black voters equal political opportunity."

The opinion drew a fiery rebuke from liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was joined in her dissent by Justice Elena Kagan, arguing that the Supreme Court faulted the Wisconsin Supreme Court for failing to undertake an analysis no one had asked for.

"The Court's action today is unprecedented," Sotomayor wrote. "In an emergency posture, the Court summarily overturns a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision resolving a conflict over the State's redistricting, a decision rendered after a 5-month process involving all interested stakeholders. Despite the fact that summary reversals are generally reserved for decisions in violation of settled law, the Court today faults the State Supreme Court for its failure to comply with an obligation that, under existing precedent, is hazy at best."

Sotomayor added that the Wisconsin court had chosen one map out of several proposals and did not draw the map itself, and that no parties involved disputed that the Voting Rights Act required some number of majority-Black districts.

"This Court's intervention today is not only extraordinary but also unnecessary," Sotomayor wrote, noting that the state Supreme Court opened the door to legal challenges against the map. "I would allow that process unfold, rather than further complicating these proceedings with legal confusion."

Legal experts also called out the court for using the "shadow docket" to decide on the lawsuit. The shadow docket largely deals with emergency orders and summary decisions without standard oral arguments. Whereas cases typically go through a lengthy process and are argued before the justices, who then hand down a lengthy opinion, the court hands down expedited rulings in emergency cases that are typically short and unsigned. Though such cases were relatively rare in the past, the court's use of the shadow docket exploded during the Trump era.

Wednesday's ruling underscored the court's growing willingness to use the shadow docket to rule on controversial political disputes.

"It reinforces how willing the conservative majority is to use emergency shadow docket orders based upon new — and deeply contestable — understandings of the Voting Rights Act," Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Washington Post.

The trend is particularly curious given that several Supreme Court justices have publicly sought to push back on criticism that the court is increasingly politicized.

"This is part of a pattern, we keep seeing more signs of a court that, rather than moderating its tone in response to those charges, is doubling down," Vladeck said.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at University of California, Irvine School of Law, agreed in a blog post that the "way this case was handled is quite bizarre and is another signal of a conservative supermajority of the Supreme Court showing increasing hostility to section 2 of the Voting Rights Act."

The Supreme Court reached its decision following just a "skimpy briefing with no oral argument or a chance to fully consider the issues," Hasen wrote. At the same time, the court's ruling "even further narrows the scope of Section 2 of the VRA, making it harder for plaintiffs to win such cases."

Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, said he was "stunned" by the ruling, which he called "head-spinningly aggressive." He noted that the Wisconsin Supreme Court was clear that adjudicating Voting Rights Act or Equal Protection clause issues would require a fuller briefing and arguments.

"In that instance, the burden of proof would be with the plaintiffs," he wrote on Twitter. "Instead, SCOTUS… shifted the burden to the Wisconsin Supreme Court."

The Supreme Court also agreed to hear a similar case about race-based voting districts in Alabama but allowed the map drawn by the Republican-led state legislature to stand for the upcoming elections. The reasoning was that it's now too close to the start of voting to redraw the districts, even though a lower federal court had ruled that the map illegally diluted the power of Black voters. But the Supreme Court evidently had no such qualms about kicking the Wisconsin map back to the state Supreme Court ahead of the state's August primaries.

After refusing to consider Voting Rights Act claims "in other states because 'it's too close to the election,' the U.S. Supreme Court today violated its own precedent and any measure of common sense," Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project in Wisconsin, told The New York Times. "Never has it been clearer that the U.S. Supreme Court majority will do anything it can to advance Republican interests, rather than the law, the Constitution and the will of the people."

Some leading Democrats warned that the Trump-packed Supreme Court "continues to put its legitimacy at risk."

The court's "ongoing willingness to act in an inconsistent manner and to ignore precedent raises real questions about its functioning," said former Attorney General Eric Holder, the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, noting that the court previously "wrongly" claimed that it was too close to the election to rule on the Alabama case.

"Today, the Court took a contrary position when it acted as close to the time of an election with the effect of harming black Wisconsin voters' meaningful participation in the political process," he said. "This unprecedented act and inconsistent application of judicial power are manifestly and sadly undemocratic."

Trump supporter shopped Ashley Biden diary at fundraiser: report

A Florida woman tried to shop around the diary of Ashley Biden, President Biden's daughter, during a 2020 Trump campaign fundraiser attended by Donald Trump Jr. before it was obtained by the conservative group Project Veritas, according to The New York Times.

The FBI in November raided the homes of several current and former Project Veritas members while investigating the theft of Ashley Biden's diary, the contents of which were published on a different right-wing website shortly before of the 2020 election. Project Veritas denied that it had illegally obtained the diary and said it had "no involvement" with the two individuals that acquired it.

Project Veritas founder James O'Keefe, a Trump ally, claimed that he learned of the diary from "tipsters" and said the group made an "ethical" decision not to publish it because they could not authenticate it. The group, which regularly conducts undercover stings intended to embarrass liberal groups and journalists, has insisted in court filings that it is protected under the First Amendment as a news publisher. The Times report suggests the group may have tried to "trick" Ashley Biden while trying to authenticate the diary. In response to Project Veritas' argument, prosecutors accused the group of making statements that are "false or misleading and are directly contradicted by the evidence."

The diary was found at a Florida home where Ashley Biden, who was recovering from addiction, had previously stayed, according to the Times report. (When she moved away, Ashley Biden reportedly agreed to store some personal belongings with the owner.) The diary was later shown around a Trump fundraiser in Florida at the home of a donor who was later nominated by then-President Donald Trump to a federal position. Shortly after that, Project Veritas obtained the diary and asked the couple who had originally acquired it to retrieve more items from the home where Ashley Biden had stayed to verify that it was hers, according to the report. A caller from Project Veritas' headquarters in New York later tried to "trick" Ashley Biden into confirming its authenticity, using a fake identity in a phone call offering to return it, according to the Times. That apparent effort could complicate the group's claims that its activities were protected under the First Amendment.

In July 2020, a woman named Aimee Harris moved into the home of an ex-boyfriend in Delray Beach, Florida, amid a custody dispute. She learned Ashley Biden, a friend of the ex-boyfriend, had stayed there during the pandemic, according to the report. Ashley Biden had left several bags of her belongings, including the diary, at the house after moving back to the Philadelphia area, saying she planned to retrieve them later. In August, Harris, who supported Trump, reached out to another friend, Robert Kurlander, a Biden critic who served 40 months in prison for fraud in the 1990s, and hatched a plan to sell the diary to help pay for lawyers in her custody battle, according to the Times.

Kurlander then contacted Trump donor Elizabeth Fago, who hosted the fundraiser that was attended by Donald Trump Jr. and was later nominated by President Trump to the National Cancer Advisory Board. Harris and Kurlander attended the fundraiser at Fago's home three days later where they showed it to others and sought to find out whether Trump's campaign "might be interested in it," according to the Times.

It's unclear whether Donald Trump Jr. or anyone affiliated with Trump's campaign saw the diary. Mark Paoletta, a former lawyer for ex-Vice President Mike Pence who was hired by Project Veritas to lobby congressional Republicans to push back against an FBI probe into the group, initially told the lawmakers that Trump Jr. had "showed no interest" and said it should be reported to the FBI, according to the report. Paoletta called the lawmakers back later, however, to say he was "unsure whether the account about Donald Trump Jr.'s reaction was accurate."

Project Veritas then sought to acquire the diary after learning about it in September, according to the Times. Harris and Kurlander flew to New York to meet with members of the group and began negotiating a $40,000 deal to sell the diary. The two sides failed to reach an agreement and Harris and Kurlander went back to Florida. Project Veritas also sent Spencer Meads, one of O'Keefe's top lieutenants, to do more digging in the state.

Project Veritas later said in court filings that it had obtained items belonging to Ashley Biden that its "sources" described as "abandoned."

"The sources arranged to meet the Project Veritas journalist in Florida soon thereafter to give the journalist additional abandoned items," the group said in a court filing.

That somewhat conflicts with Harris and Kurlander's statements to others told others that someone from Project Veritas directly asked them to retrieve more items belonging to Biden, according to the Times.

Project Veritas lawyers had repeatedly instructed the group not to encourage sources to steal evidence. In a 2017 memo obtained by the Times, one of the group's lawyers noted that Project Veritas "enjoys substantial legal protections to report and disclose material that may have been illegally obtained provided it played no part in obtaining it."

Federal prosecutors say the group played a key role in obtaining the evidence. "Put simply, even members of the news media 'may not with impunity break and enter an office or dwelling to gather news,'" prosecutors said in a court filing, disputing the group's "repeated claim that they had 'no involvement' in how the victim's property was 'acquired.'"

In October 2020, a caller who did not identify himself as a member of Project Veritas and used a fake name offered to return the diary to Ashley Biden in an effort to authenticate it. Members who heard recordings of the call said they believed that Ashley Biden had said "more than enough to confirm that it was hers," according to the report.

On Oct. 12, O'Keefe sent an email to his team saying he had decided not to publish a story about the diary despite having "no doubt the document is real," Project Veritas told a federal judge. O'Keefe said in the email that the story would be "characterized as a cheap shot."

But four days after that email, a top lawyer for the group told Joe Biden's campaign that it had the diary and wanted to interview the candidate about it, according to the Times. Less than a week later, Project Veritas wired $40,000 to Kurlander and Harris and signaled that they planned to publish the story after all.

That never happened. Instead, an obscure right-wing site called National File published handwritten pages from the diary that it said it had obtained from a Project Veritas whistleblower. O'Keefe was "furious" that one of his own operatives may have leaked it out of frustration with their refusal to publish it, according to the Times.

A lawyer for Project Veritas flew to Florida and turned over the diary and other items belonging to Ashley Biden to the Delray Beach Police Department, saying that the items were "possibly stolen." The department informed the FBI, which sent an agent to retrieve the items.

The FBI interviewed Kurlander and Harris nearly a year later and raided the homes of O'Keefe, Meads and another Project Veritas operative named Eric Cochran two weeks later.

O'Keefe did not comment on the Times report but criticized the paper for publishing it. "Imagine writing so thoroughly divergent from reality and so mendacious with innuendo that there is literally no utterance that won't make it worse," he said in an email.

O'Keefe has repeatedly denied that Project Veritas has ever done anything illegal. "We never break the law," he said in a YouTube video last year after coming under FBI scrutiny. "In fact, one of our ethical rules is to act as if there are 12 jurors on our shoulders all the time."

Project Veritas, which has been backed by former Blackwater founder Erik Prince and was trained by a former MI6 officer, has often come under criticism for its "stings," which typically involve getting journalists or liberal political figures to say something embarrassing on hidden video, often under false pretenses. Some efforts have been more daring. In 2018, the group launched an operation to set up Tinder dates with employees at the Justice Department and other federal agencies and then record them secretly, in hopes of finding evidence of an anti-Trump "deep state." The group's lawyer in a memo warned that the effort could risk violating the Espionage Act, according to the Times.

Journalists say the undercover nature of the group's work may not be illegal but is highly problematic.

"It opens you up to the charge that you've been intentionally deceptive and you lose your moral standing," Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and former editor at Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal, told the Times. "Every newsroom I've ever worked in has basically said undercover journalism was unacceptable. I've never had a reporter tell me he wanted to pose as somebody they were not."

New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman agreed that the group "uses deceptions that no reputable news organization would use."

Project Veritas, which has dealt with a range of legal issues, last year asked a judge to block the New York Times from publishing an article that included excerpts of memos prepared by one of the group's lawyers. A judge granted the motion but a New York State appeals court temporarily lifted the prior restraint order last month to allow the outlet to publish certain documents.

Ted Boutrous, one of the most prominent First Amendment attorneys in the country, called out Project Veritas for seeking to block news stories about itself while demanding broad First Amendment protections for "illegal activity" which "the First Amendment would not protect."

"Project Veritas cannot hide behind the First Amendment when it wants to speak out," Boutrous tweeted, "and then trash the First Amendment when it wants to shield itself from scrutiny simply by self-styling itself as a news organization."

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Pro-Trump group sent armed members door-to-door in Colorado to 'intimidate' voters: lawsuit

Voting rights groups have filed a lawsuit seeking to stop a pro-Trump group from going door-to-door in Colorado in search of evidence to support voter fraud allegations that have already been debunked and rejected by courts.

The lawsuit alleges that the U.S. Election Integrity Plan — led by Shawn Smith, an ally of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and MyPillow founder Mike Lindell — is sending armed members door-to-door in areas with large numbers of voters of color, questioning people about how they voted and taking photographs of their homes.

The lawsuit, which is backed by the state chapter of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and Mi Familia Vota, alleges that the "voter intimidation" campaign violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, a post-Civil War law aimed at preventing white vigilantes from terrorizing Black people to stop them from voting.

The lawsuit cites the "County & Local Organizing Playbook" used by the group, which instructs members to "undertake citizen audit activities to either refute or confirm serious allegations of election malfeasance" in order to "support future legal action." The group, some of whose members are armed, has been going door-to-door in El Paso, Mesa and Weld counties in Colorado, using public voter lists to identify areas where they believe ballots were fraudulently cast, the Colorado Times Recorder reported last year. The report prompted an alert from Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who warned voters of unofficial canvassing efforts and urged residents to report harassment and threats to local law enforcement or the Justice Department.

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"Defendants' objectives are clear. By planning to, threatening to, and actually deploying armed agents to knock on doors throughout the state of Colorado, USEIP is engaged in voter intimidation," the lawsuit states. "USEIP's public-facing actions are a clear signal to Colorado voters — especially voters of color — that to vote in an upcoming election means facing interrogation by potentially armed and threatening USEIP agents at their doorstep thereafter."

The lawsuit claims that some members have worn "badges" and falsely accused voters of fraud.

"Sometimes armed and donning badges to present an appearance of government officiality, USEIP agents interrogate voters about their addresses, whether they participated in the 2020 election, and — if so — how they cast their vote," the complaint says. "It is reported that multiple agents have claimed to be from 'the county,' and have, without any evidence, falsely accused the residents of casting fraudulent ballots."

The voting rights groups say the group's efforts to seek out areas where they believe voter fraud occurred has largely focused on high-density housing areas and communities experiencing a growth in the number of minority voters.

"No one should have to be afraid to go to the polls or fear that doing so will mean being threatened in their own homes," Courtney Hostetler, senior counsel for Free Speech for People and one of the lawyers leading the lawsuit, said in a statement. "Free and fair elections can only occur when people know that they are able to safely vote without reprisal or intimidation."

The group's "playbook" thanks Lindell, a leading election conspiracy theorist. Smith, the group's founder, attended Lindell's election conspiracy-laden "symposium" last year in South Dakota along with former Colorado election clerk Tina Peters, who was indicted earlier this month for her role in leaking sensitive voting system data that was published by QAnon conspiracy theorists and right-wing websites. Griswold's office said earlier this year that Smith had also convinced another election official, Elbert County Clerk and Recorder Dallas Schroeder, to make copies of his office's hard drives that he later gave to "unauthorized people in violation of Election Rules."

Shawn Smith, the head of USEIP last month led a "lock her up" chant while discussing Griswold at a rally and said that "if you're involved in election fraud, you deserve to hang."

He can also seen in a video among a group of violent Trump supporters who clashed with police outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He was accompanied by Colorado state Rep. Ron Hanks, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who has also pushed false election claims.

Smith is also the president of another "election integrity" group called Cause of America, also funded by Lindell, which Smith announced on Bannon's "War Room" podcast.

USEIP appears to have fully embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory. Its website and the first page of its "playbook" include the slogan "We Are the Plan," frequently associated with QAnon believers. During a presentation organized by Sherronna Bishop, the former campaign manager for Rep. Lauren Boebert, USEIP leader Cory Anderson (who is also a member of the anti-government Three Percenter militia) described the briefing as "being red-pilled," according to the Times Recorder. (That expression, originally drawn from "The Matrix," is popular among QAnon followers and other far-right conspiracy theorists.)

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The lawsuit names Smith, as well as co-founders Holly Kasun and Ashe Epp, who was also at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

It alleges that their attempted canvassing for election fraud evidence had the "purpose and effect of intimidating Coloradans from voting, trying to vote, helping others to vote, supporting or advocating for certain political beliefs, or exercising the right to speak, peaceably assemble, or petition the government for redress of grievances, in violation of Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act." The suit also accuses the group of violating a section of the Ku Klux Klan Act that bans "conspiracy to interfere with civil rights."

"Sadly, efforts to intimidate voters are nothing new," NAACP general counsel Janette McCarthy Wallace said in a statement. "The NAACP has a long and proud history of opposing those who would seek to thwart democracy. We could not sit idly by and allow voters to potentially be bullied out of exercising their rights."

The lawsuit does not offer specific examples of voters being intimidated or harassed by armed canvassers, but last year USEIP leader Charity McPike urged armed members to provide "security" for the group.

"We are attempting to line up security. However, anyone who carries protection might want to let us know so we can offer your cell phone numbers to those who are concerned," McPike said, according to Colorado Pols.

"No voter should ever feel threatened in the safety of their own homes," Celina Stewart, League of Women Voters chief counsel, said in a statement. "The nefarious actions of the USEIP are a blatant form of voter intimidation used to target and with the intent to silence Colorado voters of color, which is in clear violation of the Voting Rights Act."

The USEIP is also working with the Colorado Republican Party on its "Election Integrity Operations," according to the Times Recorder. A USEIP member is in charge of the GOP's program and has given joint presentations with Epp, the group's co-founder. Heidi Ganahl, the leading Republican candidate for Colorado governor, promoted the group during a recent event, declaring that they are "doing great things."

USEIP did not respond to a request for comment. The group's website says it plans to expand to other states, including Arizona, Georgia and New Hampshire. Its training materials are already being used by conspiracy theorists in Utah who call themselves the Utah Voter Verification Project, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Residents in Hurricane, Utah, alerted Washington County officials in December that members of the group, who refused to identify themselves, showed up at their doors with personal voter information, according to the report. The members also recorded voters without their consent.

"We can record anyone without telling them. We don't need permission," one unidentified trainer told the outlet. The group's training manual also stressed that "you do not have to identify yourself at all."

The goal of the Utah group appears to be to collect affidavits from voters who claim to have evidence of illegal votes. In the wake of Trump's 2020 defeat, his legal team attempted to submit voter affidavits to prove their debunked allegations, but those efforts were almost entirely rejected by judges and discredited by election officials.

There has been no credible evidence of voter fraud in Utah, which Trump won by more than 20 points. Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson condemned those who are spreading "misinformation" about the election and dismissed claims of fraud as "absolute falsehoods."

Other Trump supporters have tried similar door-to-door audits. Cyber Ninjas, the bankrupt company that led Arizona's failed "forensic audit," sought to send canvassers door-to-door in Maricopa County but ultimately relented after the Justice Department warned that such an effort would violate federal laws against voter intimidation.

Another group called the New Mexico Audit Force also sent its members door-to-door in heavily Republican Otero County, which had already spent $50,000 on an "audit" confirming that Trump had won the county by more than 25 points. The House Oversight Committee last Thursday announced a probe of the effort, warning that the audit "illegally interferes with Americans' right to vote by spreading disinformation about elections and intimidating voters."

USEIP also appears to have had trouble vetting its volunteers. The group's training manual says that the group intends to check volunteers' social media and called on them for a "gut check," saying leaders had "learned (roundaboutly) that there were a couple of people in our group, who were volunteering for our events, who had a criminal history of sexual misconduct," and adding, "it's unfortunate that we must check volunteers for pedophilic leanings."

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Lawsuit accuses Trump of illegally raising money for 2024 run

A Democratic super PAC on Monday filed a complaint to the Federal Election Commission accusing former President Donald Trump of violating campaign finance laws by spending donor funds without officially filing his candidacy.

Trump has repeatedly hinted at rallies that he plans to run for president again in 2024 and his super PAC has continued to raise and spend money. Campaign finance laws require candidates who raise or spend more than $5,000 in support of a presidential campaign to register with the FEC. The Democratic super PAC American Bridge accused Trump of "illegally using his multicandidate leadership PAC to raise and spend funds in excess of Commission limits for the purpose of advancing a 2024 presidential campaign."

The payments, the complaint says, include "events at Trump properties, rallies featuring Mr. Trump, consulting payments to former Trump campaign staff, and digital advertising about Mr. Trump's events and his presumptive 2024 opponent."

Many observers have noted that Trump may be trying to dodge campaign finance requirements by not formally filing his candidacy.

"I know what I'm going to do, but we're not supposed to be talking about it yet from the standpoint of campaign finance laws," Trump said during an event last fall.

RELATED: Inspector General calls for FEC ethics review after employee's ties to Trump revealed

Trump last summer told Fox News host Sean Hannity that he had already made up his mind about another presidential bid and later complained in another Fox interview that it was "unbelievably stupid" that campaign finance laws prevented him from announcing his decision.

"Let me put it this way: I think you'll be happy, and I think that a lot of our friends will be very happy. But I'm not actually allowed to answer it," Trump said. "It makes it very difficult if I do."

He has since teased potential presidential bids at rallies and at last month's CPAC event.

"We did it twice and we'll do it again," he said last month.

During a golf event in January, he referred to himself as the "45th and 47th" president.

Trump again hinted at another run to rally-goers in Florence, South Carolina last week.

"In 2024, we are going to take back the beautiful, beautiful White House," he said. "I wonder who will do that. I wonder. I wonder."

Although Trump has not formally announced his candidacy, his PACs are sitting on $122 million in donor funds, more than the Republican National Committee and the GOP's congressional campaign arms. Trump's Save America PAC, which also donates to other Republicans, spent just $350,000 on other candidates in 2021, far less than it spent on Trump's own properties.

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"Trump has played footsie with the Federal Election Campaign Act for months," American Bridge said in a statement to the Associated Press, adding that Trump's Save America PAC has spent more than $100,000 per week on Facebook ads and has "consistently raised more than $1 million per week — a clear violation of campaign finance law and precedent established by the Federal Election Commission."

There is nothing legally preventing Trump from announcing his bid but he would be subject to stricter fundraising limits and disclosure requirements if he does.

"He should have to adhere to the law in a way that all other candidates do," Jessica Floyd, the president of American Bridge, told The New York Times. "When he says 'I'm going to do it a third time,' that's not flirting. That's more than a toe dip."

Floyd said that Trump's mention of campaign finance laws last year shows the clear intention of evading FEC rules.

"It's not like he doesn't know what he's doing," she said.

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said the complaint was "frivolous."

"America is spiraling into disaster because of the Democrats' failures, and instead of reversing course, they are busy filing frivolous complaints that have zero merit," he told the Times.

But campaign finance watchdogs say the FEC should investigate the complaint.

"He's asking his list for money over and over and over again," Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), told Public Notice. "He raises money for these donors to max out to his leadership PAC, and then they're going in with $0 towards the federal limit for the campaign itself."

Adav Noti, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, told CNN that "there is a strong argument that, under the law, Trump has triggered candidacy for 2024."

But, "even in the best of circumstances," he added, "the FEC generally doesn't enforce the law at all, and when it does, it is always years after the fact."

The FEC, a bipartisan agency equally divided between three Democrats and three Republicans, has repeatedly deadlocked on investigations as Republican members have repeatedly blocked probes into Trump's campaign and other conservatives.

Though Trump has been the subject of dozens of FEC complaints, the former president has a 43-0 record in FEC cases over the past six years, according to the Daily Beast's Roger Sollenberger. None of the three Republican commissioners have ever voted against Trump, including in 22 cases where the FEC's internal nonpartisan Office of General Counsel found that campaign finance violations had occurred. Last year, a deadlocked FEC dropped its inquiry into whether Trump violated campaign finance laws when he had former attorney Michael Cohen pay adult film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money to stay quiet about their alleged affair. Last month, the FEC declined to hold Trump accountable for "soft money" violations to which his campaign had already admitted, according to the AP.

Democratic commissioners have sought to leverage the panel's rules to get courts to force the agency to act. Campaign watchdogs have repeatedly sued the FEC for not doing its job and Democratic commissioners are now blocking the agency from defending itself in court in response to the lawsuits, in hopes that federal courts will enforce campaign laws.

"It is not like I think the courts are automatically going to come to the same decision I would come to," Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub told the Times. "But I think it's got a better shot."

That strategy has seen mixed results thus far.

"Campaign finance laws are routinely ignored and corruption is rampant," Stuart McPhail, senior litigation counsel at CREW, told the Times. "This path is the best in a broken system."

Other FEC critics hope the tactics will prompt Republicans, who have long resisted stricter enforcement of campaign finance rules, to reconsider the way the FEC works.

"If they break it so much that federal courts are intervening," Noti told the Times, "that would seemingly be an intolerable situation to Mitch McConnell."

'Treasonous lies': Mitt Romney calls out Tulsi Gabbard for 'parroting Russian propaganda'

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, on Sunday accused former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of echoing Kremlin talking points after clips of her interview with Fox News were broadcast on Russian state TV.

"Tulsi Gabbard is parroting false Russian propaganda. Her treasonous lies may well cost lives," Romney tweeted on Sunday.

Romney did not specify which remarks by Gabbard he meant, but his tweet came after she told Fox News host Tucker Carlson in an interview that she was "deeply concerned" about claims of bioweapons in Ukraine. In a video posted to Twitter on Sunday, the former Hawaii congresswoman claimed there were more than 25 "US-funded biolabs in Ukraine which if breached would release & spread deadly pathogens."

Carlson and other conservatives have spread a conspiracy theory that the Biden administration was funding biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine but there is no evidence to support the claims, The New York Times reported last week. The U.S. has provided funding to several organizations in Ukraine to prevent the production of biological weapons, according to the report.

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The Daily Beast's Julia Davis posted a screenshot on Twitter showing that clips from Gabbard's interview with Carlson were also replayed on Russian state TV to help "perpetuate the myth of dangerous 'bio-weapons' in Ukraine." The Kremlin has urged Russian state media to "use as much" clips of Carlson's criticism of the United States' foreign policy and NATO as possible, according to a leaked memo obtained by Mother Jones' David Corn.

Gabbard lashed out at Romney in a lengthy Twitter thread, arguing that "evidence of the existence of such biolabs, their vulnerability, and thus the need to take immediate action to secure them is beyond dispute."

"Senator Romney, please provide evidence that what I said is untrue and treasonous," she tweeted. "If you cannot, you should do the honorable thing: apologize and resign from the Senate."

Gabbard cited last week's testimony by Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, who told a Senate committee that "Ukraine has biological research facilities" that the administration is "quite concerned Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of."

The State Department told the Times that Nuland was referring to Ukrainian diagnostic and biodefense labs that aim to counter biological threats in the country, not biological weapons research or production facilities. Nuland told the Senate that the State Department is working with the Ukrainians to "prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces."

Gabbard also cited a Pentagon fact sheet confirming the existence of "such biolabs." But the Defense Department said last week that there are five biological research labs in Kyiv that focus on diagnostics, therapeutics, treatments, prevention and vaccines, not on military research or biological weapons, which are banned by the Biological Weapons Convention.

"There are no DOD bio-weapon labs in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world," a Pentagon official told reporters.

Gabbard cited other instances of U.S. officials confirming the existence of biolabs in Ukraine as Russia pushes a propaganda campaign accusing Ukraine of seeking to use biological weapons, a claim that has also been amplified by Chinese government media.

Russia has repeatedly accused its foes of developing biological weapons. CIA Director William Burns warned the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that Russia could be using the conspiracy theory to lay the groundwork for a potential biological weapons attack it might then seek to blame on the U.S. or Ukraine.

"This is something, as all of you know very well, is very much a part of Russia's playbook," Burns said. "They've used these weapons against their own citizens, they've at least encouraged the use in Syria and elsewhere, so it's something we take very seriously."

Gabbard and Carlson are not the only prominent figures who have made remarks echoing Russian propaganda. Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly echoed Russian propaganda talking points, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as "savvy" after he launched the invasion and avoided several opportunities to criticize Putin in a recent Fox News interview. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a "thug" and said the Ukrainian government is "incredibly evil" because it has been "pushing woke ideologies." Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., blamed President Biden for the Ukrainian invasion and recently attended a white nationalist conference where the audience shouted pro-Putin chants.

Former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, now a podcast host and Trump critic, praised Romney for calling out Gabbard but questioned why he did not call out those in his own party.

Walsh shared Romney's tweet accusing Gabbard of parroting Russian propaganda, writing, "so had Donald Trump. So has Madison Cawthorn. So has Marjorie Taylor Greene. So has Tucker Carlson. And there are many other Republicans/conservatives as well. Call them out Mitt."

Fox News host Mark Levin, a major Trump supporter, on Sunday also called out pro-Putin Republicans and "so-called America First-ers" for pushing a "phony story about American biotech centers [in Ukraine] to develop weapons."

"Of course, the Putin wing of the Republican Party and the Putin wing of the media and the Putin wing of the Democrat Party, they're all over it," Levin said. "No, those are old Soviet locations that the United States … has been trying to deal with. We're not developing biochemical weapons in Ukraine. … What is it about these so-called America First-ers in the end who are really America Last-ers if you think about it?"

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Connecticut GOP candidate brags about assets linked to human rights abuses

Bob Stefanowski, a Republican candidate for governor in Connecticut, has bragged about his former role at the financial giant UBS, but two reports from a watchdog group found that his bank managed assets that were linked to human rights and environmental abuses while he played a central role there.

Stefanowski, who served as chief financial officer of UBS between 2011 and 2014, makes scant mention of his time at the Swiss-based investment bank on his current website. But his previous failed gubernatorial campaign distributed mailers boasting that he "managed $500 billion in assets" while at the company. Two reports from the German-based nonprofit watchdog group Facing Finance found that some assets that Stefanowski managed were linked to companies with a "disregard for the environment and human rights."

The watchdog group found in 2013 that "UBS continues to finance controversial companies." That report noted the company's "financial ties" to Nestle, which had "several cases of child labor" in its cocoa supply chain, and to "other companies with tainted human rights records." The 2014 report by Facing Finance found that despite the company's new environmental and human rights policies, the bank "has been repeatedly accused of involvement in investments violating human rights" and that the "investment portfolio of UBS contains other companies associated with human rights violations."

Stefanowski, who also served as an executive at General Electric and payday lender DFC Global, frequently touts his business experience on the campaign trail, where he has sought to cast himself as a financial leader and "turnaround expert." Stefanowski, who pledged to spend $10 million of his own money on his campaign, lost to Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont by just three points in 2018 and the Republican Governors Association has targeted the Connecticut race as a top pickup opportunity in 2022.

The watchdog group's reports also show that Stefanowski's business career included managing investments "associated with killings, forced evictions, violent protests, and severe environmental pollution."

UBS provided loans and underwriting services to the mining corporations Glencore and Barrick Gold, which continued to face allegations of brutal human rights abuses years later, according to the 2014 report. The company's investment portfolio also included companies accused of "human rights abuses and controversial business practices."

According to Finding Finance, the pattern of UBS investments show that the bank's "business operations lack a definition of binding environmental, social and governance (ESG) assessment criteria." Although UBS published an "environmental and social risk framework" that marks "an important step towards improving transparency," the report continues, it still needs "to define minimum standards for ESG risks and publish internal sector guidelines for risk in the assessments of controversial sectors."

The group's 2013 report, which focused on the financial ties of companies facing repeated human rights abuse allegations, found that UBS continued to "finance controversial companies."

UBS "has financial ties to 24 of the 26 companies highlighted in this report," the group said, describing the companies mentioned as controversial "because of their disregard for the environment and human rights."

The report noted that UBS had "more financial ties to Nestle than any other company" it examined, and cited multiple cases of child labor violations in Nestle's supply chain. UBS also had financial connections with to "other companies with tainted human rights records," including the mining companies AngloGold, Ashanti, Barrick Gold, Jindal and Vale.

UBS in 2013 managed or owned an investment worth roughly $73 million in Barrick Gold, which has been linked to killings, beatings and gang rapes, as well as dangerous environmental pollution, according to human rights groups. While UBS continued to work with the company, at least 10 other financial institutions excluded Barrick Gold from their investment portfolios "due to the company's long history of security, environmental, and human rights-related abuses," according to Facing Finance.

UBS also had hundreds of millions in financial ties to Anglo American, including $151 million in loans, $242 million in underwritten shares and bonds, and $48.5 million in managed shares and bonds. The mining company faced international protests in 2013 after it was accused of jeopardizing the health of 13,000 people who lived or worked near its mine in Colombia. Miners who worked for Anglo American claimed it had destroyed over 12,000 hectares of tropical forest, displaced five nearby villages and moved rivers to expand its coal mining operation. Many of the villages were home to the Wayuu people, The Guardian reported at the time, an indigenous group who lived in the area well before the Spanish conquest, as well as people of African descent who had fled slavery on the Colombian coast. The company's security forces had also been accused of firing rubber bullets at employees at a mine in South Africa, injuring nine workers, according to Facing Finance.

UBS also provided $53 million in loans to AngloGold Ashanti, another mining company accused of "using highly toxic chemicals, polluting water sources, intensifying deforestation, and expelling local populations from their land," according to Facing Finance. Local news reports at the time said that Tanzanian farmers had been displaced by one of the company's gold mines, one of the largest in the country, with no compensation and forced to "live like refugees" in camps resembling those in war-torn Darfur.

Stefanowski's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

"Bob Stefanowski was either too ignorant and uninformed to know the money he controlled was going to human rights abuses, or he simply didn't care," Alexandra De Luca, a spokesperson for the Democratic PAC American Bridge 21st Century, said in a statement to Salon. "The latter seems more likely, but in either case, it's clear he is unfit to lead Connecticut."

Dark-money groups fighting Biden’s Supreme Court pick also funded Trump's 'Big Lie' and the Capitol riot

Conservative dark money groups that are fighting President Joe Biden's nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court also helped fund conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and rallies leading to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, according to a new report from the watchdog group Accountable.US.

The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), which played a key role in shaping Trump's Supreme Court nominations, last month launched a preemptive $2.5 million strike before Biden even named his nominee, accusing Biden of caving in to leftists by promising a "Supreme Court nominee who will be a liberal activist." The organization is one of many linked to a network of dark-money groups around conservative activist Leonard Leo, the co-chairman of the Federalist Society who was dubbed Trump's "Supreme Court whisperer." Other groups affiliated with Leo, like the 85 Fund, have donated hundreds of thousands to the Independent Women's Forum, another group that has run ads attacking Democrats for picking judges to advance a "woke agenda."

JCN, the 85 Fund and other affiliates have spent tens of millions to shape the Supreme Court — but have also funded groups that played a role in the Capitol riot, according to Accountable.US.

"It should worry us all that the groups leading the fight against Biden's historic nomination of Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court are tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection and efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election," Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said in a statement to Salon. "With American institutions and our democracy itself under constant attack from every direction, the importance of Judge Jackson's swift and successful confirmation cannot be overstated."

JCN was the public face of a secretive network of dark money groups that spent millions to confirm Trump's Supreme Court picks. JCN spent tens of millions helping to confirm Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, according to Open Secrets, and launched a $25 million effort to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett just weeks before the 2020 election.

JCN is closely affiliated with Leo, who also founded the 85 Fund, which he uses to funnel money to other conservative groups, which all appear tightly connected to each other. Gary Marx, the president and treasurer of the 85 Fund, is also a senior adviser at JCN, according to CNBC. JCN president Carrie Severino is also involved with the Honest Elections Project, which is part of the 85 Fund.

These groups are also tied to other groups in the right-wing donor universe. Donors Trust, a dark-money group backed by the Koch network that gave more than $20 million to at least a dozen groups that questioned the election, donated more $48 million in 2020 to the 85 Fund, according to Accountable.US. The Rule of Law Trust, a little-known conservative group that appears to have no employees, gave nearly $22 million to JCN in 2020 and another $6 million to Donors Trust. The Bradley Foundation, whose board includes Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who helped Trump try to overturn the election, donated more than $3.5 million to Leo-connected groups in 2019 and 2020, including over $1 million to the Federalist Society. Donors Trust also donated more than $700,000 to the Federalist Society in 2020.

Members of the Federalist Society played key roles in Trump's attempts to overturn the election. Attorney John Eastman, who was a senior Federalist Society fellow, worked with Trump to draw up a six-point plan to convince Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election, and later appeared at the Jan. 6 rally ahead of the Capitol riot to claim the election had been stolen.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, another Federalist Society member, filed a lawsuit aimed at throwing out the election results in a number of key states, effectively overturning Biden's victory. Of the 17 other Republican attorneys general who joined Paxton's suit, 13 were members of the Federalist Society.

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, both Federalist Society members, led the objections to the certification of Trump's loss after the riot.

Donors Trust, which has been described as the "dark money ATM of the right," funnels money from anonymous wealthy donors to a variety of right-wing causes. The group gave nearly $8 million to the State Policy Network, which helped push voting restrictions in Georgia and other states in the wake of Trump's campaign of lies following the election, according to the New York Times.

Donors Trust in 2020 also gave nearly $1.6 million to the Government Accountability Institute, a group co-founded by Trump ally Steve Bannon and backed by Trump megadonor Rebekah Mercer, which has repeatedly pushed false voter fraud claims. Since the Capitol riot, Bannon has urged his followers to seek local offices that could allow them to oversee future elections.

Also that year, Donors Trust gave over $1.45 million to the Wyoming Liberty Group, which pushed baseless claims of voter fraud while demanding a so-called election audit. It also gave $1.27 million to the Metric Media Foundation, which ran more than 1,000 partisan news sites that spread claims about voter fraud ahead of the election. Donors Trust gave over $1 million to the Thomas More Society and its Amistad Project, which filed election challenges in five states. Another $1 million went to Project Veritas, the conservative media group that publishes undercover "sting" videos which have frequently been accused of deceptive edited. Before the 2020 election, Project Veritas launched a campaign to discredit mail-in voting, which has been shown to be secure.

Donors Trust also gave $839,000 to the conservative Club for Growth, which doled out millions to 42 members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 election. Another $780,000 went to Turning Point USA, the conservative youth group that bragged about sending 80 buses to the rally ahead of the Capitol riot.

In all, Donors Trust has funneled more than $28 million to groups that pushed election lies or in some way funded the rally ahead of the Capitol riot, according to Accountable.US.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation also helped fund groups that backed election lies or efforts to impose voting restrictions. Going back well before the Trump era, the Bradley Foundation spent millions to back voting restrictions, The New Yorker reported last year. Its affiliate, the Bradley Impact Fund, also fund groups that promoted election conspiracy theories, including Turning Point USA, Project Veritas and the Heritage Foundation, according to tax filings obtained by The Intercept. The Bradley Impact Fund also donated $2.5 million to the 85 Fund and over $1 million to the Federalist Society, as well as smaller donations to numerous other groups, according to Accountable.US. Cleta Mitchell, who serves on the board of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, was the attorney who participated in Trump's infamous phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, when Trump demanded he "find" enough votes to overturn the election. That effort is currently under investigation by the Fulton County district attorney's office.

A second report from Accountable.US raised questions about ties between Leo's network and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is set to hold hearings on Jackson's nomination later this month.

Cruz, Hawley, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who all sit on the panel, all "grew up" in the Federalist Society, Law & Liberty reported in 2018, dubbing the group the "Federalist Society Caucus." Cruz, Hawley and Cotton were even on Trump's Supreme Court shortlist, which was shaped by Leo and the Federalist Society.

Cruz's nonprofit, the Conservative Action network, has received at least $500,000 from Leo's Freedom and Opportunity Fund, according to Open Secrets. Leo's Concord Fund also donated $200,000 to American One Policies, a group tied to Cotton, according to the Daily Poster.

Other Republicans on the committee have links to the group as well. Leo praised Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the committee, as a "long friend of the Federalist Society." Grassley, who previously chaired the committee during Trump's tenure, helped speed through confirmations for Federalist Society-approved judicial nominees, and Mike Davis, Grassley's former nominations counsel, oversaw a record number of circuit-court judicial confirmations during Trump's first two years in office, according to his online biography. Davis has since joined the Article III Project, another dark money group linked to Leo's network.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who replaced Grassley as the committee's chairman during Trump's last two years in office, oversaw Barrett's lightning-quick confirmation ahead of the 2020 election. Graham received a maximum donation from Federalist Society co-founder and board chairman Steve Calabresi during Barrett's confirmation process. Graham also headlined a Federalist Society event held at the Capitol building in 2019.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, another member of the committee, attended a Koch network summit in 2018 with Leo to discuss Trump's judicial nominations, according to CNBC. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has been featured in at least four Federalist Society events since 2016, and has repeatedly defended and praised the group. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., received at least $7,800 from Federalist Society leadership last election cycle, including $1,500 from Leo on the day Gorsuch's confirmation proceeding began, according to Accountable.US. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has also appeared in at least four Federalist Society events since 2009 and defended the group when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., criticized the influence of Leo, the Federalist Society and their related dark money groups during Barrett's confirmation hearing.

Last month, Whitehouse called out Leo's dark-money network for spending money to attack Biden's nominee before he had even selected one, and also for accusing liberal groups that support Biden's nominee of doing exactly what Leo's network has done for decades.

"When Supreme Court vacancies occur, a Republican dark-money operation swings into action. … Their accusations of dark-money corruption are a bizarre reimagining of the very strategy that they, themselves, hatched and executed," Whitehouse wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "But that's not all. It takes the public eye off the Roberts Court's pattern of more than 80 partisan 5-to-4 and 6-to-3 decisions benefiting easily identified Republican donor interests. Those wins often come at the expense of regular Americans, stripping away protections for minority voters, reproductive rights, the environment, public health and workers. And they often degrade our democracy: greenlighting gerrymandering, protecting dark money and suppressing the vote."

Former Fox News director who helped Russian oligarch launch propaganda network arrested

A former Fox News director who helped a Russian oligarch launch a propaganda network was arrested last month in London on charges that he helped the oligarch dodge sanctions, according to newly unsealed court documents.

John Hanick, who worked at Fox News for 15 years, beginning when the network first launched in 1996, was charged with violating sanctions and lying to the FBI in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Hanick, who left Fox in 2011, spent four years working for sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who is "closely tied to Russian aggression in Ukraine," the Justice Department said in a news release.

The DOJ said that Hanick's work for the oligarch had violated sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department in 2014 in response to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory. The Treasury at the time called Malofeyev "one of the main sources of financing for Russians promoting separatism in Crimea."

"Hanick knowingly chose to help Malofeyev spread his destabilizing messages by establishing, or attempting to establish, TV networks in Russia, Bulgaria and Greece, in violation of those sanctions," Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, who oversees the National Security Division, said in a statement.

Though the charges stem from past sanctions and not the latest slew of economic sanctions imposed on Russian oligarchs in response to the invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams stressed that Hanick's indictment shows the department's commitment to the "enforcement of laws intended to hamstring those who would use their wealth to undermine fundamental democratic processes. This office will continue to be a leader in the Justice Department's work to hold accountable actors who would support flagrant and unjustified acts of war."

Malofeyev, a banker, is a prominent right-wing figure in Russia with ties to far-right politicians in the U.S. and Europe, according to the New York Times. Malofeyev hired Hanick in 2013 to build a Russian cable news network, according to the DOJ. The network was called Tsargrad TV and was intended to be a Russian version of Fox News, according to the indictment.

"In many ways, Tsargrad is similar to what Fox News has done. We started from the idea that there are many people who adhere to traditional values and they absolutely need a voice," Malofeyev told the Financial Times in 2015.

Hanick later moved to Greece to launch a TV network that would provide an "opportunity to detail Russia's point of view on Greek TV," Hanick wrote to Malofeyev, according to the court documents. He also traveled to Bulgaria to purchase a TV network on behalf of the oligarch, the DOJ alleged.

In an interview with FBI agents in February 2021, Hanick admitted that he knew that his boss was under sanctions, but falsely claimed he did not know about Malofeyev's connection to the Bulgarian network, according to the indictment.

The DOJ alleged that Hanick "reportedly directly back to Malofeyev" about his efforts in Greece and Bulgaria but "took steps to conceal Malofeyev's role in the acquisition by arranging to travel to Bulgaria with another person identified by a Greek associate of Malofeyev, so that it would appear the buyer was a Greek national rather than Malofeyev."

Prosecutors learned about Hanick's activities from an unpublished memoir that was "discovered by investigators through a judiciously authorized search of Hanick's email account," according to the indictment.

Hanick was arrested in London last month and is awaiting extradition. He faces up to 25 years in prison in convicted on both charges.

The indictment described Hanick as a former Fox News producer, although a Fox News spokesperson describes him as a "weekend daytime director."

Hanick and Malofeyev appear to have connected over religion. The Times reported that Malofeyev is a "devoted follower" of the Russian Orthodox faith and Hanick and his family joined the Russian Orthodox church after moving to Moscow. Hanick complained in a 2013 interview flagged by Right Wing Watch that in the U.S., "serious problems, including the decline of morals ... brought the separation of church and state" and praised Russia for its state embrace of religion.

Malofeyev, who sought to launch a Russian Orthodox-based news network, is also a proponent of bringing back Russia's monarchy.

"The quasi-monarchy that we basically now have is a very good thing," he told the Times in 2020, after Russian President Vladimir Putin was re-elected. "If we were now to start calling him emperor, not president, then we wouldn't have to change much in the Constitution."

The indictment was unsealed after the Justice Department launched Task Force KleptoCapture as part of the Biden administration's sanctions on Russia over its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Attorney General Merrick Garland said last Wednesday that the task force will "use all of its authorities to seize the assets of individuals and entities" who violate sanctions against Russia.

President Joe Biden, during his State of the Union address last week, said that his administration would move to seize assets from sanctioned Russian oligarchs.

"We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts your luxury apartments your private jets," he said. "We are coming for your ill-begotten gains."