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Green Bay’s dirty election laundry aired at hearing

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Former Brown County Clerk Sandy Juno, an election official for 22 years, said she had never seen anything like what she saw in Green Bay during the 2020 presidential election — and she hopes she’ll never see it again.

Juno was among five witnesses to testify Wednesday at an Assembly Campaign and Elections hearing into the control Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich’s office ceded to private, left-leaning groups and a former Democratic operative in overseeing the election.

“I felt it put a taint on the integrity of the election,” Juno told the committee. “And I come to find out later he (an outside ‘consultant’) had all four keys and access to the (absentee) ballots days prior to the election. How can we be bringing in people from outside organizations to be working on our elections with third-party money? That really doesn’t meet the smell test.”

As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported this week, emails and other documents show private left-leaning groups, funded largely by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, exerting significant influence over the administration of the presidential election in Wisconsin’s five largest cities.

Among the more shocking findings from the emails: Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, with a lengthy resume of working with Democrat candidates, served as a de facto elections administrator and had access to Green Bay’s absentee ballots days before the election. And Spitzer-Rubenstein asked Green Bay’s clerk if he and his team members could help correct or “cure” absentee ballots like they did in Milwaukee.

“The emails reveal the city’s election authority in Green Bay was diverted by the mayor’s chief of staff and” the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), said Erick Kaardal, attorney for the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, which has challenged the outside groups’ involvement in election administration across the country.

CTCL, a left-leaning “safe elections” group, received $400 million in funding from Zuckerberg and his wife. CTCL then used much of the private donation for grants to “support election administration in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Green Bay and Wisconsin’s four other largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha and Racine — received a combined $6.3 million. Cory Mason, Racine’s liberal mayor, used a $10,000 CTCL grant to lure the funding for what his fellow left-wing mayors and CTCL officials would call “the Wisconsin 5.”

But the grants came with strings. Recipients had to agree to certain stipulations or they’d have to give the money back. That’s where, Kaardal said, CTCL let its liberal partners in to run the show. The cities were directed to bring in groups like the National Vote at Home Institute, which employed Spitzer-Rubenstein to lead the coordinated efforts among the Wisconsin 5. It appeared Green Bay’s mayor and his staff were more than glad give the liberal groups wide-ranging access.

Emails show Spitzer-Rubenstein engaged in every facet of Green Bay election administration, from writing the manual for the city’s Central Count operations to moving ballots and giving out orders at Central Count on Election Night.

City Clerk Kris Teske, the emails suggest, grew so frustrated by the constant meddling into her office by the mayor’s staff, Spitzer-Rubenstein and the “grant team” that she took a leave of absence not long before the election. She later resigned and took clerk position in a neighboring community.

“As you know I am very frustrated, along with the Clerk’s Office. I don’t know what to do anymore. I am trying to explain the process, but it isn’t heard. I don’t feel I can talk to the Mayor after the last meeting you, me, Celestine, and the Mayor had even though the door is always open. I don’t understand how people who don’t have the knowledge of the process can tell us how to manage the election . . .” Teske wrote to a city official in late August.

Spitzer-Rubenstein and the mayor’s community liaison, Amaad Rivera-Wagner fully took over, after Teske’s departure, emails show.

Andrew Kloster, who served as an elections observer in Green Bay for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, wrote in a sworn affidavit that Spitzer-Rubenstein was ordering around poll workers, handling absentee ballots and basically making life miserable for election observers. Rivera-Wagner was the muscle behind the operation, bullying anyone who challenged his and Spitzer-Rubenstein’s authority. Again, neither had authority under state law to do the kinds of things they were doing, Kaardal testified.

Eventually, after many complaints, the former Democratic operative was told by the chief election inspector to sign in as an observer. Spitzer-Rubenstein told her, in a threatening way that she was “making a mistake,” Kloster said.

“The lack of transparency knee-capped our ability to protect the votes of Wisconsinites on Election Day,” he told the committee.

Green Bay Mayor Genrich’s office and Democrats on the Campaigns and Elections Committee attacked Wisconsin Spotlight’s investigation. They scowled at the Republican lawmakers who have called for Genrich to resign and for an investigation into Green Bay’s handling of the election.

“This discussion is not a new one, and it follows the same pattern from the last hearing on the 2020 election: wild accusations, no evidence of wrongdoing, and implications of impropriety that run far ahead of the facts,” Democratic Reps. Mark Spreitzer, of Beloit; Lisa Subeck, of Madison; and Jodi Emerson, of Eau Claire, said in a statement.

Of course, they didn’t speak to the emails, which raise some serious questions about the involvement of the outside groups, and the concerns expressed by the city clerk — Green Bay’s top election official — that their activities could be in violation of election law.

Liberal defenders also like to point to the “fact” that CTCL issued grants to all kinds of communities, not just the Wisconsin 5. But as Kaardal noted in his testimony, the Zuckerberg-funded group didn’t start cutting those checks until the Wisconsin Voters Alliance challenged the organization about its exclusive funding of major U.S. cities that also happen to be Democratic strongholds in battleground states.

The city of Green Bay insists Spitzer-Rubenstein and the gang were simply offering technical assistance because they are “experts in elections, security, public relations and analysis.”

“They provided additional input and insight, but never had access to ballots, computers, storage, equipment or the like. When staff agreed with the recommendations, we implemented those suggestions. When staff did not, the City implemented our preferred course of action.”

But how do they explain this emails showing Spitzer-Rubenstein with the absentee ballots? They don’t, and it appears most media outlets reporting on the story haven’t asked them to explain.

Republican committee members said the emails are alarming.

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), chair of the Campaign and Elections Committee, said reviewing what happened in Green Bay isn’t about the 2020 presidential election. It’s about making sure Wisconsin’s elections are fair and transparent moving forward.

“I think today’s emails and personal affidavits are the beginning of the Green Bay investigation. It’s clear that more hearings are needed to address the third party investments in Wisconsin elections. We plan to hear from all involved parties,” she said in a statement following the hearing.

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