The Senate is sitting on millions of dollars as it outsources election audit funding to pro-Trump groups

By: - April 30, 2021 1:14 pm
election audit

A box of Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are delivered to be examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate Photo by Rob Schumacher | Arizona Republic/pool

Private groups are raising outside money to help the Arizona Senate pay for its election audit, and it turns out there’s an entity with several million dollars to spare that they could turn to — the Arizona Senate.

Senate President Karen Fann’s contract with Florida-based cybersecurity firm Cyber Ninjas to oversee and conduct the audit is for $150,000, a figure that she says she knew at the time would be insufficient to cover the costs. Since then, private fundraising efforts have cropped up to cover the difference, including by people and organizations that have been vocal promoters of bogus election fraud conspiracy theories claiming that the election in Arizona was rigged against former President Donald Trump.

Fann, a Prescott Republican, has praised those groups, telling KTAR radio host Mike Broomhead, “The price is going up right now. Thank God we have grassroots people that are stepping up and saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to pay for this, we don’t expect Arizona to pay for all of this because it’s important.’” 

What Fann didn’t mention during that April 27 interview is that the Senate could easily afford to provide the rest of the funding itself.

The Senate received more than $13.2 million for its operating budget in fiscal year 2021. Unlike most state agencies, the Senate is also one of the few entities in state government that gets to keep the money it doesn’t spend. And there’s always money left over.

At the start of the current fiscal year, which began in July 2020, Fann carried over more than $4 million from the previous fiscal year. That figure was far higher than in most years. In fiscal year 2020, the Senate carried over nearly $1.7 million from the prior year. In fiscal year 2019, the number was about $1.6 million. And in fiscal year 2018, it was $1.6 million.

Between its lump sum operating budget and its carryover from 2020, the Senate had about $17.3 million at the start of the fiscal year. So far, it has spent about $9.2 million, according to Senate spokesman Mike Philipsen.

That means Fann has about $8.1 million for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends on June 30. That includes nearly $3.5 million that’s still unspent from the fiscal year 2020 carryover, a sum that included leftover money from the preceding three fiscal years.

Nonetheless, Fann only spent $150,000 on her contract with Cyber Ninjas, a figure that election administration experts immediately speculated wouldn’t be enough to cover the significant scope of work, and which Fann acknowledges she knew wouldn’t cover the full costs.

Fann said the Senate had so much money left over from fiscal year 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of Covid we did not give any raises for almost two years or major repairs. We didn’t think (it was) appropriate with so many people out of work,” she told the Arizona Mirror via text message.

Fann wouldn’t say whether she and Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan had an agreement when they signed the contract that the unfunded portion of the audit would be paid for through private contributions. 

The Arizona Capitol Times reported that Fann passed up an opportunity to hire a more experienced but more expensive firm than Cyber Ninjas that has extensive experience auditing elections. Clear Ballot Group, a Massachusetts company that has conducted election audits in several states, offered to conduct the audit of Maricopa County’s ballots within six weeks for $415,000. 

Cyber Ninjas submitted the lowest bid to conduct the audit, the Capitol Times reported.

Fann told the Mirror that Clear Ballot Group “appeared to be a good company but didn’t submit (a) package for the whole audit.” Cyber Ninjas is working with several subcontractors, who are also auditing Maricopa County’s ballot tabulation machines and examining the paper and ink on the ballots, among other duties detailed in the company’s statement of work. Fann’s handwritten notes, obtained by the Arizona Mirror through a public records request, note that the only thing Clear Ballot Group would do is retabulate the election on a separate, autonomous system.

Ken Bennett, Arizona’s former secretary of state who is serving as a spokesman and liaison for the audit, told reporters Tuesday that he believes it’s “going to take way more than” $150,000 to complete the audit. Asked why Fann and Cyber Ninjas didn’t simply sign a contract for the actual cost of the audit, he said, “Because probably they didn’t want to spend more of the taxpayers’ money than they had to.”

Christina Bobb, a host with the conspiracy peddling One America News Network, which has repeatedly spread false information about the election in Arizona, raised at least $150,000 for the audit through a nonprofit group. 

On April 7, pro-Trump attorney and conspiracy theorist Lin Wood announced on the social media app Telegram that he would provide $50,000 to Bobb’s efforts from another nonprofit group he runs, and urged others to donate, writing, “When the fraud is finally revealed in one state, just watch the other states fall like dominoes!”

Just how much the audit will cost or how much is being raised is unknown. Wood wrote on Telegram that “costs exceed $1.5M but have been covered by private Patriot donors.”

The America Project, a nonprofit group started by former CEO Patrick Byrne, is also raising money for the audit through a website that lists its fundraising goal as $2.8 million. Bennett publicly urged people to contribute through the website at his press briefing on Tuesday, and he has used the audit’s Twitter account to urge people to donate to The America Project.

If the Senate were paying the full bill for the audit, those expenditures would be public records. For example, in 2010, then-Gov. Jan Brewer created a fund to help pay for legal defense of a controversial illegal immigration law she signed after supporters from around the country began sending money to the governor’s office. The Brewer administration released the names of all contributors and the amount of money they each gave in response to public records records.

Cyber Ninjas has refused to disclose who else is funding the audit and whether it has contracts or agreements with any of those other funders. The Senate does not have those records, either.

Bennett told reporters that he’ll push for the Senate to make the identities of the other funders public.

“I am going to fight with every breath I have to make sure that all of that money goes through the Arizona Senate and is publicly disclosed,” he said on Tuesday.

Fann, too, said she wants that information to be made available to the public. She said she’s told Cyber Ninjas that she’ll be asking for information about total costs and who provided the funding. However, she couldn’t say whether Cyber Ninjas would agree. The company’s contract with Fann doesn’t mention outside funding or mandate that it disclose that information.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”