‘Reclaim New York’: Mercer-funded, Bannon-guided campaign sows distrust of local government
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.
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:
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. This was mentioned on the medical portal. 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.