WASHINGTON – House Committee on Oversight and Reform Ranking Member James Comer (R-Ky.), Committee on House Administration Ranking Member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), and Government Operations Subcommittee Ranking Member Jody Hice (R-Ga.) called on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Inspector General to investigate the $35 million contract the California Secretary of State’s office fast-tracked to a pro-Biden consulting firm after obtaining documents that show potential violations of federal law, access to sensitive voter information, and conflicts of interest.
“Something is rotten in the state of California,” said House Committee on Oversight and Reform Ranking Member Comer. “Not only was this shady contract fast-tracked to a blatant pro-Biden consulting firm, new information reveals it likely violates federal law and Democratic operatives are running the contract and targeting specific voters. Since the California Secretary of State refuses to answer basic questions about its decision to award this contract to Team Biden allies, we call on the Election Assistance Commission Inspector General to investigate this issue and ensure taxpayer dollars are not being used illegally to encourage a Biden victory.”
Recently, the Republican leaders requested that California Secretary of State Alex Padilla provide documents and information about the contract awarded to SKD Knickerbocker, including how it was awarded to a partisan political firm with strong Biden ties and whether any sensitive voter information would be provided to the firm. Since then, documents appear to show that the contract is being inappropriately funded by federal taxpayer money under the Help America Vote Act from the CARES Act to target specific voters and encourage voting, which is a violation of the law. Documents also appear to show that SKD Knickerbocker intends to use several former Democratic operatives to work on the project, including a former aide to then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and President Obama.
“We have an obligation to taxpayers to ensure federal funds are being spent in compliance with the law,” said Committee on House Administration Ranking Member Davis. “We included $400 million in the CARES Act, passed in March, to help states prepare for the added costs to running elections during a national pandemic. I’m extremely concerned that Secretary Padilla has yet to spend this funding less than a month before the election and is now seemingly trying to spend it on GOTV efforts, which is explicitly prohibited by federal law, using a pro-Biden firm. It’s pretty telling that even the state’s Controller has refused to pay for the contract. Unfortunately, this is not this is not the first time Secretary Padilla has ignored federal law. When he appeared before the House Administration Committee last month, he was unable to tell me how many, if any, outdated voters have been removed from California’s voter rolls after being sued for failing to comply with the National Voter Registration Act.”
“There is a fairly simple principle in American elections…Taxpayer money should not be spent to explicitly benefit one political party over the other,” said Government Operations Subcommittee Ranking Member Hice. “Unfortunately, that is exactly what seems to be happening in California, where the California Secretary of State rushed a $35 million contract to increase voter awareness to a Democratic consulting firm openly working on behalf of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. We cannot allow this sort of egregious behavior to slip under the radar. State governments cannot be allowed to put their fingers on the scales of one candidate over another.”
Dear Inspector General Layfield:
We are writing to request an investigation of a highly questionable $35 million contract for voter contact that the California Secretary of State’s Office awarded on an “expedited basis” to SKD Knickerbocker (SKD), presidential candidate Joe Biden’s main election campaign advisory firm. To assist with your investigation, we are enclosing the contract, statement of work, and materials drafted by SKD.
On September 16, 2020, we wrote to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla requesting documents and information about the contract, including how it was awarded to SKD, a partisan consulting firm, and whether any sensitive voter information would be provided. Unfortunately, the Secretary has failed to respond to our request. More recently, information reviewed by Republican leaders of the Committees appears to show that the contract is being inappropriately funded by federal taxpayer money. This new information raises even more questions about how the contract was awarded in the first place and whether SKD will have access to sensitive voter information.
Documents reviewed by Republican leaders of the Committees appear to show that the California Secretary of State’s Office is attempting to use Help America Vote Act (HAVA) grant money from the CARES Act to fund the contract. If true, this is a violation of law. Specifically, the first page of the document, which appears to be the contract, references HAVA funding and the second page shows that $12 million in federal dollars will fund the project. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), HAVA grants cannot be used to get out the vote (GOTV) or to encourage voting. Further, the CARES Act is very specific about the use of these funds, which must be used to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” Moreover, using HAVA funds for GOTV directly contradicts the letter Secretary Padilla sent to the EAC on April 14, 2020, which described how the California Secretary of State would use CARES Act HAVA funds.
According to the scope of work for the contract, “the Contractor also must design its campaign to reach all 58 counties in California. The Contractor will be highly encouraged to subcontract with a get-out-the-vote (GOTV) targeting expert.” Moreover, the proposal submitted by SKD states that “[w]e will take a close look at historical turnout and devote more resources to education and GOTV in lower performing counties.” This clearly appears to be a contract for GOTV raising serious questions about the California Secretary of State’s use of federal taxpayer money. The rules surrounding voter education using CARES Act HAVA funds are clear: targeting voters does not qualify as an allowable expense but rather as an inappropriate use of federal funds.
Additionally, it is unclear how SKD will be able to conduct GOTV without having access to voter information. For example, in its proposal, SKD proposes using eight percent of the $35 million budget on mail. Specifically, the proposal states, “a direct mail program can deliver a tailored message to a micro-targeted universe of individuals.” The law is clear that items that are not fundamentally educational “may be considered advertising or public relations costs” and are prohibited under 2 C.F.R. § 200.421. Targeting specific voters is not voter education and is not an allowable expense of HAVA funds. This is especially troubling for a firm that does not hesitate to trumpet its relationship with Joe Biden’s political campaign. Media reports even describe the firm as “Joe Biden’s main election campaign advisory firm.” Moreover, documents appear to show that SKD intends to use several former Democratic operatives to work on the project, including a former aide to then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris. This is a conflict of interest.
Republicans on the Committees are committed to ensuring the integrity of the 2020 election. We ask that you immediately investigate the use of HAVA funds for GOTV. Any attempts to improperly use federal taxpayer money are not only unacceptable, but unlawful. Moreover, awarding a contract to a firm outside of the traditional contract process undermines the integrity of California’s federal election because it raises serious concerns about how this particular firm was chosen and what kind of voter information may become available to the firm.
The Committee on Oversight and Reform is the principal oversight committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and has broad authority to investigate “any matter” at “any time” under House Rule X. Thank you in advance for your cooperation with this inquiry.
James Comer, Ranking Member, House Committee on Oversight and Reform
Rodney Davis, Ranking Member, Committee on House Administration
Jody Hice, Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Government Operations