By Pam Martens and Russ Martens: February 17, 2020 ~
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is used to getting his way. After serving two terms as New York City’s Mayor as a Republican, he used his own vast stash of cash to repeal term limits and give himself another four-year term, running as an Independent. Now he has promised to do the unprecedented: spend $1 billion of his own money to install himself as President of the United States, running on the Democratic ticket.
Bloomberg’s campaign increasingly resembles an octopus with money gushing out of its tentacles into anything and everything that will inject Michael Bloomberg into the presidential dialogue on the local, national or social media stage. And there is an unusually dark curtain being drawn around the early days of that spending.
While there has been much media ado about the first Federal Election Commission filing that Bloomberg made in January, covering expenditures through December 31, 2019, there has been little to no acknowledgement of the fact that $81.8 million of the $188 million in disbursements were actually contributions in kind from Michael Bloomberg or his business, Bloomberg L.P., or were to simply acknowledge expenditures they had made on behalf of the campaign by one of the two. For example, an entry dated December 31, 2019 shows a “disbursement” to Bloomberg L.P. from the campaign committee, Mike Bloomberg 2020 Inc., for an even $10 million categorized as “Prepayment of Campaign Expenses.” There is no granular details on this or any of the other myriad disbursements to a “Bloomberg” entity.
We reached out to the Bloomberg campaign and asked what was going on. The campaign’s response came from Stu Loeser, whom Lee Fang at the Intercept reports was previously “retained by Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin, to combat widespread criticism that the company had fueled the opioid addiction crisis.” Loeser explained the disbursements as follows:
“None of what you are seeing are reimbursements to the campaign, they are all in-kind contributions — expenditures Mike made personally before he decided to run for President that had to be accounted for in our first filing. So, for instance, Mike paid for the ad we released to announce his candidacy personally and our filing counts it as an in-kind contribution.”
Here’s a sampling of some of the other “not really” disbursements:
October 31, 2019: $1,050,000 to Michael R. Bloomberg for “Polling”
November 29, 2019: $865,615 to Bloomberg L.P. for Strategic and Administrative Consulting
December 20, 2019: $677,446 to Michael R. Bloomberg for “Financial and Operational Consulting.”
There are two immediate questions that emerge from these “not really” disbursements with no granular details. Is Bloomberg trying to inflate how much money he has shelled out to scare other Democratic candidates out of the race? Or was this money actually spent before his official announcement of his candidacy and it is simply being reported in this opaque/lump-sum way to keep the media and his opponents in the dark about the details of his spending.
Bloomberg L.P., which is majority-owned by Michael Bloomberg, owns Bloomberg News, a financial news site that has trashed Senator Bernie Sanders in its opinion columns while elevating the campaign of Michael Bloomberg in its news columns. Sanders is currently the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president in national polls. On February 3, the day of the Iowa Caucuses, Bloomberg News published an opinion column by Michael R. Strain, the Director of Economic Policy Studies and a resident scholar at the Koch-funded, right wing, climate-change-skeptic think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The bold headline screamed: “Trump Hurts the Economy. Sanders Would Be Worse.”
One would think that having one’s own media outlet to serve as a carnival barker for one’s wares would be enough of a leg up. But it’s not enough for Bloomberg.
What is likely to become the most controversial of the Bloomberg campaign appendages is a data mining/voter targeting/online social media manipulation outfit called Hawkfish LLC that Bloomberg created over the past year. There are close ties between this outfit and Facebook, raising the specter of another potential election scandal like Cambridge Analytica. That’s the outfit that helped get Donald Trump elected President by working with Facebook. (See our report: Trump’s Rise to the White House: Cambridge Analytica Targeted “Inner Demons”.)
Reading the job descriptions and resumes of Hawkfish executives and senior staff at LinkedIn, it sounds not all that dissimilar to Cambridge Analytica. It has Behavioral Scientists, Data Scientists, and highly skilled Software Engineers. It also has close ties to Facebook. CNBC reported that the former Chief Marketing Officer of Facebook, Gary Briggs, is now among the leadership ranks at Hawkfish. Also on board from Facebook is Vinay Satish Kumar, a former engineering manager at Facebook, according to CNBC. Federal Election Commission records show that between just November 12 and December 31, 2019 Bloomberg’s political campaign had paid Facebook $8 million for digital advertising.
One Hawkfish help-wanted ad for a Senior Software Engineer reads as follows:
“We have some tight deadlines to meet and are looking for people who can start immediately, wear a lot of hats, and tackle the most important needs at any given moment. At this moment, those needs include: Data Engineers (experience with spark, BigQuery, kafka, snowflake, redshift, GCP). Apply state of the art cloud data tools to support fast moving data science analytic function; Create custom ingest/egress/matching pipelines to centralize data sources; Develop dashboards, reports and other visualizations for stakeholders.”
A window into how Hawkfish LLC might operate comes from the qualities of the fish that goes by the same name: a Hawkfish is a highly predatory species that gets its name from its Hawk-like hunting habits. It lies motionless on the bottom of the ocean, then strikes its prey maximizing the element of surprise. Hawkfish LLC is so stealthy that multiple media outlets have been unable to figure out its physical location. Its help wanted ads say only that it is in the Greater New York area.
Bloomberg is also attempting to do an image transformation as the “cool” candidate, hoping to woo young voters away from Sanders. The strategy has seemed…well, bizarre…at times. According to Tim Marcin at Mashable, the Bloomberg campaign’s Twitter page “tweeted a photo of his face superimposed over a meatball,” (you can’t unsee this) along with the following: released a video about Trump featuring a dancing gingerbread whose pants were on fire (i.e., liar, liar, pants on fire); posted a photo of President Gerald Ford eating a calzone with it oozing on his mouth and shirt; and “released a corny video of all the dogs that ‘like’ Mike after he greeted a dog by shaking its snout.”
Bloomberg’s image handlers apparently think he has to play catch-up quickly as the cool dude. According to Reuters, his campaign is paying Instagram meme accounts with millions of followers to post content about the billionaire. One meme, reports Reuters, which has 15 million followers “shows an exchange where Bloomberg is shown asking, ‘Can you post a meme that lets everyone know I’m the cool candidate?’ ”
The Daily Beast’s Scott Bixby also reports that Bloomberg’s campaign is “trying an ad strategy familiar to every other startup with a ton of cash and a questionable business model: Paying influencers to make it seem cool.” This time it’s with Tribe, a platform that “connects social-media influencers with the brands that want to advertise to their followers.”
Bloomberg’s money machine appeared to be working – until this past weekend. According to a Reuters/Ipsos national poll released on February 10, Bloomberg had moved up 6 points to a 15 percent share among Democratic contenders. Unfortunately for Bloomberg, moving up in the national polls has also brought media scrutiny of his jaded past. Two large circulation newspapers did bruising articles over this past weekend. The Washington Post exposed allegations of Bloomberg’s over-the-top vulgar and sexist language in the workplace after obtaining lawsuits filed by women along with the contents of related depositions. The focus of the New York Times’ article was how Bloomberg’s charity operation is now being used to call in chips from past contribution recipients for endorsements in his presidential bid.
The New York Times reported that Bloomberg has already moved 50 of his Bloomberg Philanthropies’ staff to his new political campaign headquarters in Times Square. Just how much of that quid-pro-quo was going on before the physical move to Bloomberg’s campaign headquarters is an open question. According to Bloomberg’s campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission, he acknowledged more than $300,000 in rent as a contribution-in-kind to his campaign for using the prior location of Bloomberg Philanthropies at 25 East 78th Street in Manhattan to work on his campaign prior to officially declaring his candidacy. The address is an 1897 mansion Bloomberg bought in 2006 to house his charity.
The New York Times also reported that the Bloomberg Family Foundation’s Chief Executive, Patricia E. Harris, has made the move as well as James Anderson, who had headed the Foundation’s Government Innovation program. “Overnight,” reported the Times, “Ms. Harris and Mr. Anderson went from providing cities around the country with grants to contacting mayors for support. Dozens of current and former mayors have since endorsed Mr. Bloomberg, including leaders from major cities like Houston, Memphis, Tampa and Washington.”
There are many things that Michael Bloomberg has in common with Donald Trump — the antithesis of what most Democrats want to elect. Both are multi-billionaires; both have secret non-disclosure agreements with women who have accused them of sexual harassment; both have multi-billion-dollar private businesses which make no public filings, thus posing insurmountable conflicts of interest. In Bloomberg’s case, the bulk of his $61.5 billion net worth comes from leasing out his data terminals to Wall Street’s trading floors around the globe. At a time when Wall Street is looking more dangerous than ever and is in desperate need of reform, is Michael Bloomberg really going to bite the hand that feeds him?