By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Just days after outlawing counties from taking outside grants to run elections, the state Senate is now accepting private donations to complete its audit of the 2020 election.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said the cost of the review of the general election is running higher than the $150,000 budgeted. She blamed at least some of that on the lack of cooperation by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
But there are so far no answers about whether the public will ever find out who is providing the cash.
Potentially more significant, Fann acknowledged that the private companies that already have been hired for the $150,000 review may separately be taking money from outside sources directly -- and not through the Senate. And that would be in a way that could hide not only who is giving the money but exactly how it is being used, beyond what's in the Senate contract.
The disclosure comes just days after lawmakers approved -- and Gov. Doug Ducey signed -- legislation saying that outside cash should not be used to run elections. Proponents said it raises too many questions about whether the dollars are being allocated in a way that would be unfair.
Beyond that, they said that elections are a government function and should not befinanced by rich outsiders.
But Fann told Capitol Media Services she shes no conflict between that new law and using outside dollars to conduct what the Senate says is another government function: reviewing the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County and the integrity of the election equipment to determine if the results reported -- the ones giving Arizona's 11 electoral votes to Joe Biden -- were accurate.
"We're in a no-win situation,'' Fann said.
It starts with the refusal of the supervisors to let the private companies Fann hired do their review at county offices. The board's position is that the results have been reviewed multiple times and they see no reason for additional waste of time and money.
"For example, right now we are arranging 24-hour security at the (state) Coliseum since the Board of Supervisors is refusing to let us anywhere near the building,'' she said.
"I want to make sure we have 24-hour surveillance, both live-streaming and video at all times, as well as physical security guards there,'' she said. "In that case, I've even had people that have security firms with bonded security people say, 'Hey, we're willing to contribute, we're willing to donate the time for some of your folks.' ''
Fann said some checks have come in, unsolicited.
But that's just the tip of the financial iceberg.
Christina Bobb who works for the conservative One America News Network says she already has raised $150,000 through a web site called "Voice for Votes'' to cover the costs incurred by the Senate as it attempts to determine if the results announced are accurate. That organization is set up under federal tax law as a social welfare organization which can engage in lobbying and advocacy, making the donations not tax deductible.
And as a social welfare organization it is not required to disclose its donors.
If the dollars were given to the Senate, there would at least be some official record of how the money was spent.
But the cash could end up going directly to the contractors that Fann hired to conduct the audit. And at that point there would be no public record at all.
Bobb did not return messages seeking details of the money she has raised, where it has come from, and whether the dollars would go to the Senate or to the contractors.
There is precedent for the state to accept donations.
In 2015 lawmakers set up a fund to raise $50 million to construct border walls in Arizona. But that was disbanded when just $55,000 was raised.
Allowing outside firms who already have contracts with the state to raise extra money on their own, however, appears to be without precedent.
Fann acknowledged she had discussions with these outside firms about getting extra cash outside the purview -- and the view -- of the state.
"Many of them said there are organizations out there, there are grassroots, there are people willing to donate time and their expertise to help out,'' she said. "Some people have offered to donate services, whether it's with the analysis of this stuff, whether it's helping with security.''
But she did acknowledged that there could be questions about firms that have contracts with the state out soliciting money on their own, with no disclosure to the public about who is providing those dollars. What Fann does not have as of now are answers.
"If the vendor is going to get grants for something, if they are getting people donating work or whatever, I can certainly ask them to see if and when that happens,'' she said.
"I would like to know who it is and to what amount and for what,'' Fann said. "We can certainly ask those questions.''
The Senate president said she's in a no-win situation in agreeing to take outside cash.
"It doesn't matter what we do,''' she said, with some criticizing the use of taxpayer dollars to conduct an audit while others don't want outside funds from unknown sources to finance it.