‘Reclaim New York’: Mercer-funded, Bannon-guided campaign sows distrust of local government

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By Saturday, Aug 26 News  27 Comments
Long Island billionaire Robert Mercer, CEO of Renaissance Technologies, owner of the data mining firm Cambridge Analytica, major donor to the Trump campaign, investor in Breitbart News, who is funding Reclaim New York.

Now that he has departed the White House as President Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon is returning to his old job as editor of Breitbart News with more influence than ever. But the alt-right “news” website isn’t the only project that Bannon is involved in. In late July, I was given a flash drive and instructions to attend a meeting in a vacant rented storefront in Utica, N.Y., about 80 miles west of Albany, which led me to discover another, lesser known organization operating under Bannon’s guidance — one whose objective seems to be the crippling of local government in order to build, from the grassroots up, a constituency mistrustful of elected officials, institutions and public policy.

While this campaign is playing out in upstate rural New York, its headquarters are at 597 Fifth Avenue in New York City, at an office that houses the data mining company Cambridge Analytica. Owned by Long Island billionaire hedge fund manager and Trump’s largest campaign contributor Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica has come under FBI investigation for spreading Russian propaganda during the 2016 election to manipulate voter turnout. Mercer was also active in the 2016 elections in his home state of New York, donating $500,000  to Congressman John Faso’s superPAC to beat Democratic challenger, Zephyr Teachout.

Mercer also helped fund Breitbart News with an investment of $10 million.

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon.

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon.

Sharing Mercer’s New York office — Cambridge Analytica also has offices in London and Washington, D.C. — is a smaller organization called Reclaim New York, often called simply “Reclaim.”  It, too, is funded by Mercer, but has been operating under the radar with minimal press attention since at least 2015. At the beginning of the summer, The Edge received sensitive documents, including Reclaim’s tax returns, from a source familiar with Reclaim. What we found was alarming. Here is what those documents and our investigation show:

Rebekah and Robert Mercer.

Rebekah and Robert Mercer.

Reclaim New York is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. Its 2015 tax returns show that the organization operates with a revenue of $1.25 million, has expenses of $1.05 million, (which include a $100 thousand payment to a New York consulting firm), and spends $36,000 on advertising annually. Most importantly however, Reclaim purports, both on its website and in a statement from a spokeswoman at its New York office, to be “nonpartisan.” However, also listed in the tax returns is Steve Bannon, who is marked down as having served as the vice chairman of Reclaim since last August. Also on the board of directors is Leonard Leo, the vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, and Robert Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah Mercer, who served on the executive committee for then President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team and is now the Treasurer of Reclaim.

Having board members who have donated to, and worked closely with, Donald Trump is no sure sign that Reclaim isn’t living up to its “nonpartisan” requirement. Plenty of nonpartisan initiatives, such as The Brookings Institute and Better World Campaign, are led by directors who have worked in the Obama and Bush administrations. And Reclaim’s professed mission to hold local government accountable isn’t necessarily driven by partisan intent. According to Gallup, 75 percent of Americans believe that there is “widespread corruption” in government — and that was before the 2016 elections.

What makes Reclaim different is its agenda.

The organization uses money from the Mercer family to hold meetings across rural towns in New York. From Long Island to the Hudson Valley, Reclaim rents spaces in local offices and restaurants where it holds what it calls “information sessions” to which the public is warmly welcomed.

At meetings like this, a team of Reclaim staff, sometimes from other states, instructs the attendees on how to hold their local governments (especially school boards) financially accountable. They do this by training volunteers to file Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to these municipalities. In Massachusetts, such queries are typically called public records requests. Reclaim New York claims to have instigated 2,500 FOIL requests and amassed a mailing list of 25,000.

The 'affordability crisis' flyer that was distributed to the Reclaim training session in Utica.

The ‘affordability crisis’ flyer that was distributed to the Reclaim training session in Utica.

In its 2015 tax return, Reclaim asserts: “By using the Freedom of Information Law, Reclaim is securing the fiscal year checkbooks from every school district, village, town, city, and county in the state. This data will be made public in the state’s first online, searchable database for local government expenditures. In parallel, citizen training will be conducted to illustrate how to access government information and to crowdsource the effort across the state. Ultimately, these efforts will coalesce to create a more responsible government that fosters proactive transparency.”

I wanted to see just how Reclaim trains New York residents, and whether the organization was making good on holding local governments accountable. So on July 20, I traveled to Utica, N.Y., to attend a Reclaim meeting entitled, “The Affordability Crisis: How to Stop Our Neighbors from Leaving.” Although Utica is by no means a wealthy city, Reclaim was apparently insinuating that corrupt local government had imposed such high taxes that it was compelling people to move out of the community.

Reclaim held its presentation in a small commercial storefront off Main Street. Before an audience of 19, the guest speaker was introduced by a former Herkimer County legislator, Steven Keblish. The speaker, John Byrne, was not from Utica, but from Oneonta. He began with a colorful PowerPoint presentation with charts and surveys showing how New York state’s taxes are too high. The premise of his pitch was that not only are taxes in New York too high but that local representatives could not be trusted to spend the tax money wisely.

John byrne, addressing meeting of Reclaim N.Y. in Utica. Photo: Victor Feldman

John Byrne, addressing meeting of Reclaim N.Y. in Utica. Photo: Victor Feldman

Among the puzzling aspects of Byrne’s presentation, however, was the fact that none of his surveys and statistics cited their sources. When asked by an audience member about where his information came from, Bryne’s face turned bright red, as he stammered, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

A woman from Chatham, New York, who did not want to disclose her name, questioned the premise of Reclaim, asking, “Sure, there are corrupt government officials, but are we to assume that everyone is corrupt and that all taxes are bad? I want to pay taxes for roads and schools, don’t you?”

Immediately a group of four men sitting in the front row turned back to face the questioner. They looked to be in their mid-30s and all wore similar outfits — polo shirts and slacks. One interjected, “Don’t you want to know how your taxes are being spent?” The man, who told me later that he was also with Reclaim, appeared strikingly offended by the question on taxes.

Byrne, now completely flushed and turning paler, attempted to regain control of the conversation. “When was the last time you filed a FOIL request?” he asked the woman from Chatham. The room fell silent.

Nobody in attendance had filed a FOIL request before.

Reclaim Nw York staff, at right, confronting skeptic. Photo: Victor Feldman

Reclaim Nw York staff, at right, confronting skeptic. Photo: Victor Feldman

Turning back to the projector, he ran through a series of slides showing how each of us could file a FOIL request to our local boards of education requesting their checkbooks from the past fiscal year. “It’s your right,” he proclaimed. “You should demand accountability because we don’t know what these people are up to.”

“So what do you do if you file a FOIL to a school board and they don’t respond? Do you sue them?” another attendee asked. Byrne denied that Reclaim would press litigation, but seemed uneasy. “Let’s move on,” he said, quickly scrolling to the last slide.

Before he could finish, another question was thrown at him: “What do getting these checkbooks tell us? Are you finding any corruption?” The man standing at the back of room who asked the question seemed skeptical. Evidently confused, Byrne replied, “I think it just helps keep them accountable.”

At the end of the presentation, two people volunteered to go to other Reclaim events. They seemed interested in lower taxes and believed that Reclaim was taking an honest and effective approach.

Later that evening I spoke with Michael Kink, the executive director of the Strong Economy For All Coalition and an attorney familiar with Reclaim. I asked him if getting the checkbooks from local school boards would uncover malfeasance, and why Reclaim was so adamant about training New Yorkers to file FOIL requests in massive numbers.

reclaim ny“They have taken a great tool, FOIL, and weaponized it,” he said. “Look, wanting to know how your government spends tax money is perfectly fine, but what they are doing is different. They try to get as many people to file FOIL requests and overburden small school boards and municipalities. They send hundreds, if not thousands, of these requests and they know that the respondents often can’t reply to all of them on time. When a school board refuses to respond, or fails to do so in the allotted 20 days, Reclaim sues them. It’s a way of intimidating and crippling local governments, not actually holding them accountable.”

I spoke with Gianni Ortiz, a member of Indivisible Chatham — a chapter of the national organization to resist Trump’s agenda. She echoed Kink’s words, adding, “Steve Bannon was deeply involved with Reclaim. It fits his mission to make people distrustful of government. It could be part of Mercer’s goal to make New York State more Republican or pro-Trump. Remember, Mercer was one of the biggest donors to New York congressional races last cycle, including New York District 19’s John Faso to which Mercer and his daughter Rebekah contributed $1 million. He wants lower taxes for himself and his friends. The whole agenda there is very cynical.”

Cynicism aside, it’s hard to take Reclaim’s glossy website about grassroots activism and citizen engagement seriously. The website fails to provide evidence that its approach holds school boards accountable, or that any of the information displayed on the statistics it shows come from legitimate sources. Reclaim asks its audience to believe in its cause, but expects blind faith in the assumption that all local governments are deeply corrupt.

That hasn’t stopped Reclaim from submitting 2,500 FOIL requests to 91 towns in Westchester County, 32 in Rockland County, and 45 in Columbia County. Although 83 percent of the requests were complied with, Reclaim is currently suing five school boards in the Hudson Valley for failing to respond to their requests.

Some school districts, like the one in Peekskill, a town of 24,000 along the Hudson River south of Poughkeepsie, are resisting. In response to Reclaim New York’s suit, the school district says it had already turned over 200 pages of documents but declined to provide copies of individual checks. The district argued that it would provide that level of detail if Reclaim dropped its suit.

If Ortiz is right, Reclaim’s pitch is nothing more than a façade for an organization whose mission is to sow distrust in government, school boards, and public education.

Steve Bannon at the Owl's Nest, the Mercer Long Island compound, after the November election.

Steve Bannon at the Owl’s Nest, the Mercer Long Island compound, after the November election.

Whether this strategy will work is unclear. But before departing from the White House, Bannon met with Mercer to talk about future projects. A Harvard Business School classmate of Bannon’s once described him as a brilliant thinker and one of the most intellectual and cunning people in the room — and Bannon has declared his intention to “deconstruct the administrative state.” His strategy of using political opponents to his advantage is well documented.

Reclaim New York achieves, or at least sets out to achieve, Bannon’s goals. It takes advantage of people who want to become involved in grassroots activism. It lures them in with an opportunity to file FOIL requests, and then uses laws that were meant to hold government accountable to undermine those very governments.


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27 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Susan P. Bachelder says:

    Thank you for an eye opening article on where Mr. Bannon is now and what we need to be aware of. Another cynical move attempting to subvert honest concern in how we self govern into distrust of a nebulous “other” they create. An old story. Engagement is the best weapon with which to fight back against encroachments on our democratic system. There is no “Other” to “Reclaim” our government from. We all just have to show up. When this point is effectively communicated to all our citizens of every age great things can happen. Thank you for your vigilance and good luck at Brandeis.

  2. Pete says:

    This why we need a free press, which by the way, often exposes real corruption. I suppose Breibart would call this piece fake news. We also have whistle blower protection laws and law enforcement that prosecutes corruption. These groups assume we are all stupid and asleep at the wheel. Just reading the opposing views in the Edge leads me to believe our local government and schools are continuously questioned and being held accountable.

    1. Rena Weber says:

      WTF! Free press? Is that what you call CNN, MSNBC, etc? I guess you’re for BLM, Antifa, CAIR and all the terrorists groups. You and your buddies are what’s wrong with America. How much is Soros paying you? You should be euthanized.

      1. Deanna T. says:

        I really, REALLY hope this is satire, Rena.

      2. Katherine Burns says:

        Troll.

  3. David R. says:

    Very nice piece, Victor, though frightening! Good work exposing these cannibals.

  4. John says:

    School enrollments plummeting in the Berkshires, yet tax burden explodes. Why should anyone have any faith in government?
    Government clearly now serves government, and not the constituents. Time to rightsize government

    1. Pete says:

      These guys and his crew are not the answer. How did Mercer get so rich? He and Bannon, not to mention our president probably pay less taxes than you and me. People like this tilt the table so they end up with all the money and lobby the Congress to pass their own agendas.

      1. John says:

        Pete, you and I know that the IRS shows no mercy nor favor.
        These folks pay more in taxes than one can fathom.. really…

    2. Jeremy says:

      Dear John – please take some time to attend school board meetings, select board meetings, finance committee meetings, or any similar public forum in which volunteers wrestle with the difficulties of running a public education system across a geographically large, relatively sparsely-populated area, where the population of school-age children is declining (as you rightly observe); in an era where many costs such as health insurance, retirement benefits, and repair of aging school infrastructure are completely out of the control of the municipalities. Observing just a few such meetings will, I hope, help you and others understand that “government” is not the problem. Yes, there are very real problems to solve, and many people engaged in trying to solve them. Why not join them and try to help ? It’s pretty easy to stand on the sidelines and blame others; but much harder to get out on the playing field and try to move the ball towards the goal.

    3. Peter Reginato says:

      “Government clearly now serves government” no… its government serving the corporations getting you to believe that government is corrupt so corporations can make the rules to their financial benefit why do you think Renaissance Technologies, would spend so much effort and money ? because they want the best for you ? no they want to do away with all laws that stop them from making a even bigger profit at ultimately your expense

    4. Peter Reginato says:

      “School enrollments plummeting in the Berkshires” yes true but its everywhere on all levels including private and I see no TAX INCREASE either
      http://www.wheelerandtaylor.com/buyers-sellers/berkshire-county-property-tax-rates/

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Did you read that link, or just figure no one else would?
        Tax per $1000 assessed:

        2010. Great Barrington. $ 11.52
        2014. Great Barrington. $ 13.56
        2017. Great Barrington. $ 14.60

        Most people consider that an increase in rate. It also does not reflect the increased property value assessments.

        When was the last time we saw a decrease in local government spending reflected in a proposed town budget? How about a decrease in the school budget (which amazingly is higher than the rest of the town budget)?

  5. Martin says:

    Doesn’t seem very alarming to me at all. I think the writer is upset that there are grassroots organizations on the conservative side funded by wealthy individuals. Why doesn’t he pick an organization on the left funded by Soros and company and go attend and file a report? What hypocrisy.

    1. Pete says:

      I didn’t think the writer was “upset,” but researched and reported what he observed. He observed that the website and presenters provide no sources for their numbers, and provided no numbers that their tactics are successful in holding school boards accountable. Nothing’s wrong with demanding accountability, but automatically assuming every one is corrupt is fear mongering. Why isn’t the same group asking for Trump’s tax returns? Yes, there are organizations on both sides that present themselves as civic minded but are really political organizations with an agenda.

    2. Dave says:

      ‘upset that there are grassroots organizations on the conservative side funded by wealthy individuals.’
      Reread the article. The rub here isn’t wealthy individuals funding grassroots groups. It’s grassroots groups that say they’re trying to make governments less bureaucratic and more ‘accountable’ who can’t provide any evidence that they’re doing anything more just burying them in more bureaucratic paperwork.

    3. Renee Hack says:

      Can you point to Soros undermining civic institutions across the board. What are you thinking? This group wants the best for increasing wealth for the 1%, not the rest of us.

    4. Tom Parrett says:

      Yes, Reclaim New York is funded by wealthy conservatives, in particular the Mercers. No, it’s not “grassroots” by any stretch of the term. It has no membership and no volunteers. Everyone working for Reclaim is a paid employee. It is, in fact, an ideological organization no different from a political party or lobbying group. Meanwhile, the people working to expose Reclaim are either committed individuals, members of the network called Indivisible which has no wealthy donors, or the press such as this news site. This are not insignificant differences.

  6. Gianni Ortiz says:

    I thought this was a great article and generally well researched. I am Gianni Ortiz and the founder and lead organizer for Indivisible CD19 NY, based in Hudson, not Indie Chatham. Thank you for the good work.

  7. Diane Berry says:

    thank you for this article. wish our local press in Utica had as much integrity.

  8. Concerned Citizen says:

    Bannon helped to create the most mistrustful administration and the most mistrustful media outlet in the history of this country.

    1. Dan says:

      This movement does not wish to fix the government – they want to eradicate it completely. Why else would they just leave it at “Elected officials” and not get specific?

      The mere fact that Bannon is involved with this should raise not just a field of red flags, but an emergency siren.

  9. Margo says:

    Interesting information. Mercers support of Faso is disconcerting. Tough battle ahead to win back CD 19.

  10. Scott Robert culbreth says:

    I’m gald to see this group is finally getting some exposure . We have been following this organization for awhile . They don’t really seem to
    be making much headway . I havn’t been able to figure out what their real purpose is besides just being a nuisance . It’s hard to believe
    that a group of people who were able to adopt the now supposed president’s campaign, and carry him to office , would bother with harrassing small local civil governments . These people are a little kooky . Whenever someone asks me , ” what were they thinking”, My answer is usually , They wern’t thinking . I guess they think N.Y. being a very blue state would be a real tasty plum to pick . If anyone has any
    ideas about what their real agenda might be please contribute .

  11. Bill says:

    Agenda…. To tear down the government. Bannon has said as much himself.

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