A massive effort to obtain Michigan voter data spearheaded by powerhouse Democratic group Priorities USA was so "unusual" that top officials in the state contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security over the matter, internal emails provided to the Washington Free Beacon show.
Michigan clerks began receiving "mystery" Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests last year from an opaque limited liability company, the United Impact Group LLC, seeking a large assortment of voter data from across the state, including ballots cast in the 2016 elections. The efforts were later linked to the Priorities USA Foundation, the separate but affiliated nonprofit arm of Priorities USA Action, the largest outside liberal super PAC.
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The requests from the group "unnerved" local clerks, the Detroit News reported at the time.
Even though Priorities had been publicly tied to the effort, and officials were aware of the connection, the nature of the requests and the opacity of the LLC alarmed officials to such a high degree that numerous government agencies were alerted, according to emails shared with the Free Beacon obtained through Michigan records requests by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a group that litigates to protect election integrity.
"Attached and below you will find information regarding an unusual Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that has been pursued in Michigan," Mike Senyko, then the chief of staff in Michigan's secretary of state's office wrote in an Aug. 28, 2018, email to a senior adviser on election security at the Department of Homeland Security. "Following is a brief summary: All, or virtually all, of the local units of government in Michigan have received a FOIA request asking for ballots from the November 2016 presidential elections in Michigan. The State has not received the request. In addition to the request itself being unusual, the organization/person behind it was not easily identified – specifically Emily of the United Impact Group in Astoria, NY. In most instances, identifying information was redacted by the requestor furthering the unusualness of the request."
"Yesterday, a local clerk informed us that the email in the FOIA was ultimately linked to a email@example.com. Since that time, it has been discovered through media reports that the request is probably associated with a group called ‘Priorities USA Foundation,'" Senyko said. "However, with the unusualness of the request, the lack of transparency in the request, and an unusual email connection, I have chosen to forward this information to you directly. We had already begun to share this with the FBI in Detroit as well."
The next day, on Aug. 29, the adviser responded saying the information would be forwarded to the rest of his DHS team and the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center to review.
The email address Senyko referred to in his communications with the adviser was discussed in an email the day prior by Michigan's director of elections, Sally Williams. Williams's email mentioned a clerk in St. Louis, Mich., after an attempt was made to contact the email address provided by an "Emily" at the United Impact Group who did not provide a last name.
"Wow, read through," Williams wrote in an Aug. 27 correspondence to other individuals at Michigan's secretary of state's office. "A local clerk tried to email Emily and it came back as undeliverable – with some additional information attached. The clerk then googled that additional information. Please share with our law enforcement contacts."
The clerk had attempted to email Emily at the provided address, firstname.lastname@example.org, which came back as not yet delivered to email@example.com.
"I googled that name," the clerk said in a message to an elections email address at the secretary of state's office. "Please see the following: Members of the Tereshchenko family have achieved prominence in Ukraine and the world as businessmen, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and landowners, beginning in the 18th century. The family has Cossack roots and comes from Hlukhiv, the former residence of the Hetmans of Left-bank Ukraine."
The United Impact Group's requests contained a P.O. Box in Astoria, N.Y. Despite this, the group is not registered in New York, according to a search of state corporation records. The entity is, however, registered in Delaware, a popular location due to secrecy that comes with establishing an LLC in the state. United Impact Group LLC was incorporated on July 19, 2018, Delaware records show.
Additionally, an address could be gleaned from one of the checks sent by the United Impact Group to the City of Mount Clemens. Though an attempt had been made to black it out, the address appeared to be in Charlotte, N.C., according to a clerk referred to in the emails.
The FOIA requests from the United Impact Group are included in the cache of emails given to the Free Beacon by the Public Interest Legal Foundation; they include 17 requests in each FOIA sent to clerks throughout the state. The group sought information on Election Day ballots and related materials, absentee ballots and related materials, provisional ballots and related materials, and recount records.
Priorities USA issued a statement in late August confirming that they were behind the FOIAs. The statement was released after information had already been shared with the FBI, the same day the chief of staff in Michigan's secretary of state's office shared the information with the DHS cybersecurity adviser, and one day before the adviser said his team would review the provided information.
Priorities said it had contracted a third-party firm to send the requests as part of a project "to determine whether any discrepancies exist in the ballot process across various states and precincts that might disproportionately affect certain communities, particularly communities of color and young people."
Marc Elias, an attorney at the Washington, D.C., office of the Perkins Coie law firm, was tapped to join Priorities USA’s board in early 2017. He was commissioned to lead voter-related efforts from its nonprofit arm, which would build a national database "intended to serve as a one-stop inventory of restrictive voting measures" to be shared with other liberal organizations. Elias was just months removed from acting as Hillary Clinton's top campaign lawyer when he was brought on board, and these Priorities efforts are similar to those he led throughout the 2016 presidential cycle, fighting voter identification laws in a number of states in an initiative bankrolled with millions from liberal billionaire George Soros.
Soros was also a top donor to Priorities USA's PAC throughout the 2016 election cycle, providing $9.5 million to the committee, while his son, Alex, gave the group $1 million. Soros gave $5 million more to the PAC during the 2018 election cycle.
The Priorities USA Foundation, the arm behind the Michigan efforts, was formed in 2017 and reported $6.4 million in contributions and grants between February and December of that year, tax forms show. The foundation marked $3.8 million in expenses, $2.4 million of which was paid to Perkins Coie, Elias's firm, for litigation services. The nonprofit arm does not disclose its donors. The foundation's figures for 2018, when its Michigan efforts took place, are not yet available.
Elias, Priorities USA, and the Michigan secretary of state's office did not respond to requests for comment on the initiatives and circumstances that led officials to contact the government agencies.
"Pro tip: if you don't want to spook election officials about your intentions, at least use your full name when you try to get a copy of nearly every document generated during a presidential election," said Logan Churchwell, the communications and research director at the Public Interest Legal Foundation, the group that obtained the emails.
Priorities USA's efforts prompted the introduction of a bill in the Michigan legislature that would require complete names, addresses, and contact information on records requests, Michigan Live reported last December.