Sandoval is one of several Trump appointees in the federal government — some in senior roles — who are harnessing their expertise for the project, according to the group’s leader.
The participation of administration officials in the project shows the extent of the efforts by the president’s allies to justify his unfounded allegations of widespread ballot fraud.
Federal employees are required under ethics rules to keep political activity separate from their government roles. Officials with the Voter Integrity Fund said the political appointees participating in the project are doing it in their personal time.
In an interview on Friday, Sandoval defended his involvement in the endeavor as appropriate, saying he had taken vacation time from his government position, which he started last month. He said he was not using any government resources, such as his work computer or cellphone, while searching for fraud.
“I am doing this in my private capacity, just as many others have done in past elections,” he said. “I think it’s pretty clear that this is acceptable and normal.”
A spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, where Sandoval works, said on Friday that Sandoval was on leave, but did not respond when asked if he was continuing to receive his government salary.
Sandoval is part of a hastily convened team led by Matthew Braynard, a data specialist who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. Another participant is Thomas Baptiste, an adviser to the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, who also took a leave to work on the project.
Braynard said in an interview that several other government officials on leave are also assisting the effort, but he declined to identify them.
The group is analyzing voter rolls and other databases in search of signs that ballots may have been cast illegally, information that Braynard said is being shared with Trump’s campaign. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The group appears to be attempting a makeshift version of an effort already conducted by a nonprofit consortium of states, which uses sophisticated data analysis to root out duplicate voter registrations and registrations of people who have moved or died. A Washington Post analysis of vote-by-mail data from three of the states in the 2016 and 2018 elections found that officials identified 372 possible fraud cases among 14.6 million votes — 0.0025 percent of ballots.
Braynard maintained that his project was pathbreaking, saying they had found that many states do not update their voter rolls “very aggressively or frequently.”
“Nobody’s ever done this before,” he said. “These things have to be done to find potential problems.”
David Becker, who led the creation of the interstate consortium, said it had taken more than three years to develop and relied on sophisticated software and proprietary state data that is unavailable to analysts like Braynard and Sandoval.
Becker said the Voter Integrity Fund appeared to be the latest in a series of “shoddy, fly-by-night” efforts to replicate the project and would inevitably flag numerous false positives based on inadequate data.
“I would put absolutely no stock in their analysis,” said Becker, who is now the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Trump has made unsubstantiated and exaggerated claims about voter fraud for years and repeatedly tried to undermine this year’s election in advance by claiming without evidence that it would be rigged. Since Election Day, the president and his allies have continued to make wild allegations about the voting process in several states. The claims, some false and others lacking evidence, have been amplified by Trump’s supporters in conservative media.
In a statement released on Thursday, federal and state government national security and election officials said that the election was “the most secure in American history.” The group said that despite “unfounded claims” to the contrary, it had “utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections.”
Braynard and Sandoval claim that they have found evidence of possible fraud, but they have yet to make their any detailed findings public.
Braynard also acknowledged that “some of the evidence isn’t terribly compelling,” but said their work was valuable even if it ultimately showed Biden was the winner. “If this was a clean election, we can dispel a lot of the concern out there,” he said.
Sandoval also declined to associate himself with Trump’s repeated claims that he would have won the election if any illegally cast votes were discounted. “I can’t say that right now,” he said.
“But we are going to be asking for weeks and months who really won, and was there fraud, and if I can use my skills to help bring transparency to that, then it is worthwhile,” Sandoval added.
Sandoval, 46, ran a digital marketing technology firm in New York before he joined Trump’s long-shot 2016 campaign as director of data operations. He entered the administration in 2017 as an adviser in the Treasury Department before moving to the Department of Veterans Affairs after a few months.
He was made the department’s acting chief information officer in April 2018 and later became chief technology officer before taking a job in November as president of MCI, an Iowa City-based outsourcing company. MCI’s founder and chief executive, Anthony Marlowe, is a Republican donor and vocal Trump supporter.
Asked whether the Voter Integrity Fund had contracted with MCI for call center services, one of the firm’s major business streams, Sandoval said: “All vendors we work with requested anonymity.” Marlowe did not respond to messages.
Sandoval said on Friday that he rejoined the government six months ago, taking a post at OMB, where he was promoted last month to chief information security officer.
The post was created by the Obama administration in 2016 with the mission to “drive cybersecurity policy, planning, and implementation across the federal government.” His involvement in the Voter Integrity Fund was first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Sandoval, Braynard and their team are operating from a cramped apartment that Braynard shares with his wife in northern Virginia. Braynard said the group comprises nine people who are working “campaign hours,” starting at 8 a.m. and going on late into the night, fueled by fast food.
He has narrated their efforts through a stream of tweets. “Once More, Unto the Breach,” he posted Friday with a photo of several 2016 Trump campaign alumni taking part in the project.
Braynard said the group had contracted several companies to set up call centers for contacting voters in the closely contested states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden has been projected the winner in all six by multiple media outlets.
Braynard said the operation had called approximately half a million voters so far and aimed to make contact with 1.25 million in total.
Callers for the project have left voice mails for voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin noting that state authorities were reporting that the recipient had voted in the general election, according to a recording and a transcript obtained by The Washington Post. The callers, who specified that they were from the Voter Integrity Fund, left a number and urged the recipient to call back if that person had not, in fact, cast a ballot.
Not all the group’s calls have been on target. When attempting to verify a ballot cast in Philadelphia by P.C. Nguyen, a branding consultant, the group instead called her younger sister in Los Angeles.
“I thought it was a little creepy,” Nguyen, 43, said in an interview. “They are an official-sounding organization, and I worry people could call back and say something that is misinterpreted.”
According to its fundraising page, the group has raised more than $630,000 in donations using GiveSendGo, which describes itself as the “#1 Free Christian Crowdfunding Site.” Sandoval said the average donation was $75 and the highest was $10,000, but declined to identify the biggest contributor. Braynard said one donor had loaned the group $60,000 to buy data.
After speaking with The Post on Friday, Braynard said in a series of tweets that the group had raised enough money and was not asking for more. The group’s fundraising page says Braynard “will personally receive zero dollars.”
Braynard began raising money last week on GoFundMe, but his fundraising page was taken down by the platform. GoFundMe did not respond to a request for comment. Politico previously reported that GoFundMe said Braynard’s project “attempts to spread misleading information about the election and has been removed from the platform.”
Braynard said his group had obtained from state authorities publicly available lists of people who requested early or absentee ballots, and had also obtained data on who eventually voted. He said the group had paid commercial vendors to provide additional data on these people, such as their dates of birth and telephone numbers. This data was then compared against other databases such as the Social Security Death Index and the U.S. Postal Service’s change-of-address records.
In its hunt for fraud, the group has prioritized calling several distinct groups it has identified in its data, according to Braynard: voters who appear to be deceased, voters who appear to have changed their address to another state, people recorded as having requested a ballot but then not recorded as having voted, and people who cast a ballot despite being rated a “low/inactive voter.”
Braynard said that operatives for the group are following up with people who have disputed records stating they had voted and asking them to sign written accounts of their cases that could potentially be used in legal proceedings.
“The only things I think that will make a difference are affidavits and death certificates,” he said in a video that he posted online to explain the group’s work.
Like other federal employees, Sandoval and the other government officials who have signed on to the voter fraud project are prohibited under the Hatch Act from taking part in political activity while working in their official capacity.
A guidance document published the ●day after Election Day by the Office of Special Counsel, which monitors compliance with the Hatch Act, noted that federal officials were barred from using their official authority or government agency resources “for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”
The rules mean that officials working for Braynard’s group may not invoke their government titles while they work on the voter fraud investigation and must work on the project only in their personal capacity.
“All it would take is a slip of a few words,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the nonprofit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight and an Obama-era spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel. “Even if they stay on the right side of the law, they could be treading in dangerous territory.”
Multiple Trump appointees have been accused by ethics watchdog groups of violating the Hatch Act. In June 2019, the Office of Special Counsel recommended the removal of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway for repeated violations of the Hatch Act after she disparaged Democratic candidates while speaking in her official capacity on social media and in television interviews.
Since Election Day, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has made politically charged remarks in numerous media appearances, while stating that she is speaking in her capacity as an adviser to Trump’s campaign rather than as part of her government role.