Among the curious aspects of Councilmember Brandon Todd’s 2015 campaign, whose finances have drawn withering scrutiny from the Office of Campaign Finance and the media for failing to report or adequately document some $134,000 in campaign contributions, is a trio of expenditures in April of that year to a firm called Block By Block at an address in West Trenton, New Jersey.
In three separate expenditures just two months before the 2015 special election to fill Muriel Bowser’s vacated Ward 4 council seat, Todd’s Green Team campaign paid more than $100,000 to the company, which has a track record of get-out-the-vote services in New Jersey and a presence in D.C. that seems to have been designed to be difficult to pin down.
Block By Block does not appear in an Internet search to have a working phone number or current presence at the 820 Bear Tavern Road address in New Jersey listed on Todd’s expenditures. That address, in fact, is for a firm called Corporation Trust, a company that offers registered agent services. The total of the three payments to Block by Block—$50,000 on April 10, 2015, $42,085 on April 23, 2015, and $12,670 on April 27, 2015—account for the campaign’s single largest disbursement and are all listed as for “consultant” services.
Darryl Wiggins, the finance manager for Todd’s campaign, tells Loose Lips that the company provided get-out-the-vote services, including sign-posting, door knocking, and phone banking. “All of that,” he says.
Yet Wiggins has no knowledge of who runs Block By Block or how the company was hired. “I don’t recall his name. I was not involved in that process,” he says. “I was told they would be supporting us to get out the vote.” By whom? LL asked. “The campaign told me that, all of them, the committee, Brandon. It’s difficult to recollect. It was two years ago. That was not a monumental issue. I don’t remember that stuff. It was not that significant.”
But if Todd remembers, he won’t say. The handpicked successor to Bowser—and a Green Team mainstay—did not respond to a request for comment. Wiggins says that he has had conversations about Block By Block in the normal course of campaign business activities but declines to say with whom. “I haven’t been involved with the OCF investigation. Ben is handling that,” he says, referring to Todd’s campaign treasurer Ben Soto.
LL finds it odd that a campaign finance manager would suggest a $100,000 expenditure to a GOTV operative just two months before an election would not be significant enough for him to recall any details.
Block By Block has a significant presence in New Jersey. Back in 2013, a 527 political organization called Building a Better New Jersey, engaged in “issue advocacy,” paid the company $200,000, according to IRS filings.
The 2014 mayor’s race in Bayonne, New Jersey, featured a significant last-minute spending spree, prompting news reports of incumbent Mayor Mark Smith spending $800,000 in an unsuccessful runup to the election—$62,140 going to Block By Block for “research and polling programs.”
Also in 2014, political action committee Democrats For Education Reform dumped $2 million into a Super PAC called Newark First, $300,000 of which went to Block By Block for “field services” in a mayor’s race to defeat public education advocate Ras Baraka, according to the N.J. Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Though Block By Block’s New Jersey operation is connected to the small world of D.C. politics, that tie seems meant to be confusing.
On May 23, 2016, the Carpenter’s Fund for Growth and Progress, out of Edison, New Jersey, made an independent expenditure of $50,000 to a PAC called The Mobilization Project, whose treasurer is listed as Gary Gruver, at 1725 I Street N.W., Suite 900, according to D.C. campaign finance records. That same day, The Mobilization Project made an independent expenditure to Block By Block at the Bear Tavern Road address in West Trenton.
Block By Block also is co-located with other firms at the D.C. address listed for The Mobilization Project, and those firms have factored into Todd’s campaigns and at least one of the Green Team’s founders.
In addition to its receipt of Todd’s sizable expenditure in his special election campaign of 2015, Block By Block received two payments from the Washington D.C. Association of Realtors PAC totaling $80,000 during a two-week period between May and June 2016—at 1725 I Street N.W., Suite 900. During that same two-week period, as Todd was running for re-election, his campaign wrote checks totaling more than $105,000 to the Ardleigh Group, LLC, also located in Suite 900 of 1725 I Street N.W.
Sources say Block By Block and Ardleigh are the political ground operations for a consultant named Matt Schneider, whose firm, Field Strategies, also is located at 1725 I Street N.W., Suite 900. Field Strategies is a national company that has supported progressive organizations, labor unions, and municipal, state, and national candidates all the way up to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Schneider is an old hand at local grassroots campaigns. He was featured in a 1998 City Paper piece about the rough-and-tumble world of campaign sign controversies, and his firm received more than $25,000 in expenditures from Adrian Fenty’s council re-election campaign in 2004.
Though Field Strategies’ offices also are at 1725 I Street N.W., Suite 900, D.C. records list its actual business address at 888 16th Street N.W., Suite 650—the exact address listed in Massachusetts business records for Ardleigh Group, registered in that state as a foreign limited liability company.
Schneider, managing director of Field Strategies, makes it sound as if he and Block By Block are like strangers in the night. Of the 2015 special election, he says: “We recommended Block by Block, one of the best voter contact firms in the country, to manage and execute the field strategy. Once they were hired by the campaign, we worked for them to help design the program that helped Councilman Todd win.”
Schneider says Block By Block was founded by a man named Blair Talmadge, a Jersey-based campaign consultant who LL also traced to Philadelphia, and who works on campaigns all around the country. According to Schneider, Block by Block executed the Todd campaign’s voter ID and GOTV efforts designed by Field Strategies, including knocking on doors and making phone calls to D.C. voters.
Block By Block is a separate company that Field Strategies collaborates with often on campaigns, Schneider adds. “They are one of the best in the country,” he says.
LL could find no payments to Field Strategies by Block By Block or the Todd campaign, and a spokesman for Schneider did not return email inquiries about the address shared by the two firms—or Ardleigh Group, or the $105,000 expenditure it received from Todd’s 2016 campaign.
To make matters more confusing, a source close to Todd has told City Paper that the committee in fact hired Field Strategies, which then brought in Block By Block. Calls to Jackson Carnes, the main field organizer for Todd, and Ben Soto, his campaign treasurer, were not returned. Asked to clarify Field Strategies’ relationship to Block By Block, Darryl Wiggins, Todd’s campaign finance manage, says he would have to check with the campaign committee. He did not return follow-up calls.
Exhausted from trying to unravel the world of Matt Schneider and his involvement with Todd’s campaigns, LL began to wonder what Todd got for the more than $200,000 he paid to Block By Block and Ardleigh Group during his 2015 campaign and his 2016 re-election.
Sources well-acquainted with the Green Team, and longtime Ward 4 residents, say they did not see the kind of robust presence from Todd that one might expect from such well-financed GOTV efforts. They say that during Todd’s 2015 special election to fill Bowser’s vacated council seat, Bowser’s people were instructing donors and campaign operatives to redirect their energy and resources to the special election in Ward 8, where Green Team darling LaRuby May was in a crowded field of opponents, eventually eking out a victory over Trayon White in a special election to fill Marion Barry’s seat. Todd, they say, was advancing his own campaign on sheer hustle, going door-to-door on his own behalf.
“Brandon was pissed,” a source tells LL. “Muriel was telling people their money should go to LaRuby. Brandon was going around down the stretch saying he needed $30,000.”
Todd, of course, went on to win re-election in 2016, while May, forced to run again against White in a much narrower field, was defeated.
Looking to the east, LL was able to find a Green Team canvasser from May’s 2016 campaign who shed light on the Green Team constellation and its relationship to Matt Schneider and Block By Block.
Native Washingtonian, entrepreneur, and political strategist Ronald Williams Jr. says he was at Malcolm X Elementary School, a Ward 8 polling station, during the last days of early voting for the June Democratic primary in 2016. He was canvassing for May when Bowser’s deputy chief of staff, Lindsey Parker, on leave from her job to support the campaign, approached him about Schneider.
“Lindsey started the dialogue,” Williams says. “She mentioned Matt’s [Schneider’s] name, and Block By Block, and said that if I wanted to get involved with the Bowser administration, that I should talk to him. I read it as, ‘If you wanna work with us, you partner with him.’ She brought it up a couple weeks later at a campaign fundraiser. She wanted me to get with these folks, but I was hesitant. I was not trying to partner with anyone.”
Parker did not respond to multiple calls and an email.
LL is left wondering why the Green Team can’t get its story straight about Schneider and Block By Block in Ward 4 and won’t speak to overtures made to a Ward 8 strategist who wanted nothing to do with Schneider.
Meantime, OCF’s general counsel is investigating the results of an audit of Todd’s 2015 campaign that has him playing defense. He reportedly attempted to file responsive documents last week, but it was unclear whether they were received. LL asked the agency’s public affairs manager Wesley Williams about the status of the investigation, but he says he is unable to discuss what remains an open case.
The Todd campaign’s posture since news of the audit broke has been that there’s nothing to see here. But the double speak followed by silence suggest otherwise. Ghost companies, Matt Schneider, and the New Jersey connection all seem ripe for explanation.