Lakeland lawyer seeks records on 'Zuck Bucks'

·9 min read

A Lakeland lawyer has accused Hillsborough County’s elections office of potentially partisan activity favoring Democrats in the weeks before the 2020 election.

Hardam H. Tripathi is the plaintiff in a civil complaint filed in May seeking to force a contractor to provide records related to a $2.6 million contract for a voter-education campaign it received from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office. The legal action centers on “Zuck Bucks,” money provided to elections offices nationwide through a nonprofit largely funded by Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook’s parent company, and his wife.

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Hardam H. Tripathi is the plaintiff in a civil complaint filed in May seeking to force a contractor to provide records related to a $2.6 million contract for a voter-education campaign it received from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office.
Hardam H. Tripathi is the plaintiff in a civil complaint filed in May seeking to force a contractor to provide records related to a $2.6 million contract for a voter-education campaign it received from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office.

In a 173-page initial complaint, Tripathi detailed his efforts to gather records of the contract the elections office signed with Vistra Communications, a Hillsborough County company. He claimed that both the Supervisor of Elections office and Vistra have failed to provide detailed information, asserting that the responses violate Florida’s public-records laws.

Tripathi’s three lawyers — Seldon Childers of Gainesville, Charles Hardage of Lakeland and Rachel Rodriguez of West Palm Beach — filed the complaint with the Circuit Court of the 13th Judicial Circuit, based in Tampa. It names Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer and Vistra Communications as defendants.

Tripathi seeks a judgment declaring that Vistra has failed to provide requested records within a reasonable time. He also asked the court to direct Vistra to produce all the requested documents and to pay “reasonable costs of enforcement” of the action, including his attorney fees.

Latimer strongly rejected the accusation of partisan favoritism, and a lawyer representing his office has asked to have the complaint dismissed.

Circuit Court Judge Melissa Polo, in an order issued July 21, granted a motion by Vistra to have Tripathi file an amended motion within 10 days. Tripathi entered the motion on Wednesday, deleting the 17-paragraph introduction in which he provided a summary of the elections office’s contract with Vistra and offered such judgments as, “The public interest calls for a full accounting of these events.”

Wary of private funds

In the complaint, Tripathi described the Hillsborough elections office as first saying publicly it would seek the private funds and then hastily submitting an application without documenting the details of the process. The lawyer argues that the office appeared to forge an agreement with Vistra to provide services before the $3 million grant had been approved.

Tripathi questioned why a public department would accept private funds to carry out its constitutionally assigned duties. And he said that records indicate the elections office offered a misleading description for the project, calling it a voter-education campaign when it was actually a “get out the vote” campaign targeting groups more likely to vote for Democrats.

Hardage is president of the Republican Club of Lakeland and Tripathi serves as secretary. Latimer is a Democrat now serving in his third term after being reelected without opposition in 2020.

Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $350 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life in the months before the 2020 general election, according to Ballotpedia. Zuckerberg said the funds would be used to provide election infrastructure, such as voting equipment, the hiring of additional staff and protective supplies for poll workers.

The nonprofit parlayed the funds into grants made to nearly 2,500 jurisdictions nationwide in the 2020 election cycle, Ballotpedia reported, with more than $16 million going to offices in Florida. The grants came at a time when many elections offices faced challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as changing voting procedures or expanding mail voting.

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Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said her office did not accept any private funds for use with the 2020 election.

The CTCL, founded in 2015 and based in Chicago, describes its mission as helping Americans remain civically engaged and helping to “ensure that our elections are more professional, inclusive and secure.” Critics accused the center of giving a disproportionate share of grants to Democratic-leaning counties, a charge that the CTCL’s leaders have denied.

Some political observers warned more generally about the infusion of private money into elections carried out by public agencies. Florida and more than 20 other states have since passed laws barring elections offices from accepting private funds.

In the complaint, Tripathi said that the $3 million grant equated to one-fifth of the annual budget for the Hillsborough elections office.

Tripathi cited a report from Florida Politics from Sept. 2, 2020, in which a spokesperson for the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections dismissed the possibility of seeking a grant from the CTCL. A week later, Latimer’s Chief of Staff, Peg Reese, sent an email indicating the office would pursue the funding, according to the complaint.

Emails suggest the elections office initially planned to seek a modest grant to cover the costs of signs and additional early-voting sites, the complaint says.

Tripathi wrote that Reese soon corresponded with a David Horwich, who used a personal email account that didn’t indicate his connection to the CTCL. Horwich instructed Reese on how to apply for a grant, the complaint says, directing her to a template with much of the required information already entered.

The following day, Reese sent an email to Latimer and Gerri Kramer, the chief communications officer, with a completed draft of a “Safe Voting Plan” template, the complaint says. The draft listed the grant amount at nearly $2.8 million and said that most of that amount would go toward voter education, outreach and communication “in a pandemic environment,” Tripathi wrote.

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The first written communication between the elections office and Vistra occurred three days later, the complaint says, when Kramer received an email from Vistra CEO Brian Butler that included a table labeled “Campaign Concept.”

“Although the SOE’s grant request had not yet been approved, the email and letter from Mr. Butler seemed to assume that the SOE and Vistra had already agreed that Vistra would be receiving the entirety of the $2.6 million the SOE had requested for ‘voter education, outreach, and communication,’” Tripathi wrote.

Reese received an email from the CTCL four days later saying the elections office had been approved for a grant of nearly $3 million, Tripathi wrote. Latimer’s office signed a contract with Vistra the next day, the complaint says.

Tripathi questioned when the agreement was reached and whether Vistra was involved with the grant application.

Records indicate the entire grant amount was spent in a six-week period from Sept. 22 to Election Day on Nov. 6, the complaint says.

The contract called for Vistra to implement a voter-education campaign. Tripathi asserts that the operation actually sought to boost participation by groups likely to favor Democratic candidates.

The complaint cites a document in the Vistra contract that lists “audiences” for the voter-education campaign as “youth,” “Black/African-American,” “Hispanic/Latnix” and “Mainstream.”

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“These emails strongly suggest that the Campaign was in fact a get-out-the-vote drive that the SOE preferred to characterize as a voter education effort,” Tripathi wrote. “Even more troubling — as described below — the Campaign’s get-out-the-vote drive appears to have been designed in partisan terms to benefit the Democrat Party.”

The complaint describes Tripathi’s repeated requests beginning in November 2021 for documents related to the grant application process and discussions with Vistra. Instead, the lawyer wrote, the records provided to him mainly consist of brief emails and basic documents such as contracts and the grant application.

“It is as if the SOE intentionally left behind a publicly reviewable record that would defeat the intentions of any voter seeking to use Florida’s broad public records laws to shine light on the events of September to November of 2020,” the complaint says.

The complaint contains 149 pages of exhibits, such as copies of emails, the Vistra contract and records requests submitted by Tripathi and Hardage.

Rejecting accusations

Both the Hillsborough elections office and Vistra Communications have filed motions to dismiss the complaint. In a motion from June, Robert Brazel, Hillsborough County’s Chief Assistant Attorney, argued that the claims for relief do not involve the Supervisor of Elections office and only make allegations against Vistra. The document says that the complaint contains no requested relief against Latimer.

The Hillsborough elections office sent The Ledger a written statement from Latimer. In the 458-world statement, Latimer said he faced two unique challenges in the 2020 election, “a pandemic and a proliferation of misinformation related to elections and voting.”

Latimer wrote that Tripathi’s original complaint, and to a lesser degree the amended complaint, were “replete with pages upon pages of innuendo and supposition far afield of factual elements of a public records dispute.”

Latimer wrote that he anticipates a resolution with Tripathi.

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“However, the complaint alleged that a change in a communications campaign title from ‘Get Out The Vote’ to ‘Voter Education’ was an attempt to disguise a partisan outreach effort,” Latimer wrote. “That baseless attack on my integrity is something I will not let stand.”

Addressing the contract with Vistra, Latimer wrote that his office used most of the CTCL grant on voter education. He wrote that Vistra promoted details about the election on TV, radio, billboards, ride-share vehicles, gas pumps, movie screens, airport displays and print news publications.

Vistra CEO Brian Butler emailed a statement to The Ledger.

“In September 2020, Vistra Communications entered into a contract with the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office to implement a Voter Education Campaign, which included developing strategy, planning, executing and managing the campaign through creating, placing and buying a broad range of advertisements,” the statement said. “Our team created a campaign to reach all Hillsborough County residents in a very short period of time, and we did that exceptionally well through print, radio, broadcast, billboards, digital and other media outlets. We believe we have provided all required documentation related to this highly successful campaign to The Supervisor of Elections Office.”

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Florida lawyer Hardam H. Tripathi probes use of Zuck Bucks in Hillsborough election