For those ready to believe that President Trump really won re-election, there’s one particularly fantastical conspiracy theory to hang your hat on.
It’s called ItalyGate, and it offers a simple, direct, and especially implausible claim: An Italian defense contractor teamed up with the U.S. Embassy in Rome to use satellite transmissions to switch millions of Trump votes to Biden votes, thus stealing the election.
What makes this conspiracy theory especially handy among the many whackadoodle Big Lie claims is that it serves to explain why, as the former president has argued, millions of vote batches came in in the middle of the night as overwhelmingly for Biden: they were the product of a “data switch” by Italian operatives with access to advanced satellite technology.
As it turns out, the ItalyGate conspiracy theory wasn’t merely floating in the MAGA ether — another harebrained explanation for fringy Trump diehards to cling to. Revelations this week and additional reporting by TPM offer new insights into how ItalyGate sprang into existence and made it all the way to inner sanctums of the Justice Department, the White House, and perhaps to Trump himself.
Much of the story still remains a mystery that’s been lost in the haze of the right-wing fever swamps, but TPM was able to identify several people and companies that played key roles in promoting the theory.
Among them is a Florida non-profit called Nations in Action, on whose board conservative lawyer and noted voter fraud alarmist Hans von Spakovsky served. Von Spakovsky told TPM that he resigned from the group two days after the Capitol insurrection, and did not reply to a further inquiry about what he did for Nations in Action. Two companies controlled by a Virginia realtor and onetime Somali hostage negotiator named Michele Ballarin also played key roles in promoting the theory.
It remains unclear how the theory went from Ballarin and Nations in Action to the White House, though the Nations in Action chief said in an emailed statement to TPM that she told Trump about the allegations at Mar-a-Lago on Christmas Eve. Emails released by Congress this week show then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pushing senior DOJ officials to investigate the theory, sending along a YouTube video that elaborated on it as well as an Italian-language letter with a translated copy purporting to back up the allegations.
‘A revolutionary moment’
What came to be called ItalyGate blew up online in December 2020, weeks after Biden had been declared the winner but as Trump was continuing to contest the results. It quickly metastasized. By early January, a former Air Force lieutenant general-turned-Fox News analyst-turned-Trump campaign adviser was repeating the allegations.
What wasn’t publicly known until this week was that on Dec. 30 Meadows sent an email to top DOJ officials urging them to look into the ItalyGate allegations. They scoffed among themselves at the suggestion. “Can you believe this?” then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen emailed another top DOJ official, forwarding a long email thread of similar Meadows’ mischief.
It’s not clear where the bogus allegations originated. But one of the earliest examples of them spreading, Reuters reported, was in a December 2020 recording of a Florida woman named Maria Zack.
Zack runs Nations in Action, a non-profit that describes itself as devoted to addressing “the collapse of the civil society with families struggling to maintain faith, values and virtues.” A longtime conservative election law firm, Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, incorporated the company.
It has not been previously reported that longtime Heritage Foundation fellow Hans von Spakovsky, a leading voter fraud alarmist, served on the board of Nations in Action. More on von Spakovsky in a moment.
Nations in Action became one of ItalyGate’s main proponents.
The theory even made it to Mar-a-Lago, where Zack said that on Christmas Eve she gave Trump a note about an affidavit that supposedly supported the allegations.
Zack denied giving the affidavit itself to Meadows or Trump, but did claim to an interviewer that she told the then-president: “‘This is gonna be the best Christmas you’ve ever had, and the best Christmas gift, because the whistleblower who switched the data for the vote counts across America is going to be providing an affidavit.'”
“And he swung around and looked at me,” she recalled.
On Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol attack, Zack traveled to Washington, D.C. to give Congress the affidavit in time to avert Biden’s certification as winner of the Electoral College vote. The group issued a press release saying that it had enough proof “for each state to recall their slate of electors immediately.”
“It is a revolutionary moment,” Zack said in an interview shot from the backseat of a car in D.C. on Jan. 6. It’s not clear how far Zack was from the Capitol during the interview, though it was broadcast live between 4 and 5 p.m., when the building was still occupied. At one point, she refers to the question of “if they regain control of the Capitol.”
In the interview, with the internet show “America Can We Talk?” Zack jovially recounts the revelations about Italy, peering into a camera that appears to be perched between the driver’s seat and the front passenger’s seat. Why she is speaking in a car is left unexplained, and unremarked upon.
“And I believe you’re gonna see — and we are seeing right here in downtown D.C. what’s happening when Americans are awake,” she added.
What was von Spakovsky up to?
A leading architect of the voting restrictions Republicans have pushed around the country over the past 15 years, von Spakovsky served in the George W. Bush DOJ and on the Federal Election Commission in the mid-2000s.
TPM discovered von Spakovsky’s name in an annual report filed by Nations in Action with the Florida secretary of state. It lists his title as “officer.” Nations in Action told TPM that von Spakovsky had served on its board since the group’s 2017 inception.
Von Spakovsky told TPM in an email exchange that he had resigned from the group on Jan. 8, two days after the insurrection attempt that cost five lives.
“I resigned from the board many months ago and have had nothing to with the organisation or its allegations,” he wrote.
When asked why a May 2021 Florida corporate filing names him as an officer, von Spakovsky wrote: “That is their mistake.”
Nations in Action confirmed that von Spakovsky resigned on Jan. 8 and told TPM in a statement that it was “looking into the error in our corporate filings.”
Von Spakovsky did not reply to requests about what work he performed for Nations in Action. But von Spakovsky was apparently on the board of the group as Zack spent December and early January propagating the idea that Italian operatives used satellites to steal the election, and as the theory spread like wildfire on the internet.
Von Spakovsky’s presence on Nations in Action’s board appears to have bridged mainstream GOP voter suppression efforts with wild pre-insurrection allegations that, as Zack put it, Italian operatives used a “military satellite uplink to load the software and transfer it over to change the votes from Trump to Biden.”
Rome to West Virginia, by way of Somalia
Nations in Action’s involvement, and von Spakovsky’s role with the group, don’t fully account for where this theory came from, or how it may have ended up on the desk of Mark Meadows.
But both Nations in Action’s activism and the letter that Meadows forwarded to Acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen offer a possible clue that leads down another rabbit hole, to a Virginia realtor with a background that’s about as fantastic as the ItalyGate theory itself.
In a Jan. 6 press release calling for Congress to reject the states’ electors, Nations in Action thanked another group called the Institute for Good Governance for partnering on its investigation, which “yielded the long-awaited proof that a flawless plot to take down America was executed with extraordinary resources and global involvement.”
TPM obtained Virginia corporate records showing that the Institute for Good Governance is registered to a woman named Michele Roosevelt Edwards, who runs another firm called USAerospace Partners that purchased some of the assets of an Icelandic airline in 2019.
It gets stranger.
The letter that Meadows forwarded to Rosen was written by a man named Carlo Goria, who claimed to be an employee of, yes, USAerospace Partners. The letter was written on what appears to be company letterhead, and Goria had issued press releases on the company’s behalf in the past.
TPM tried to reach both Goria and Roosevelt Edwards to gain clarity on why these companies were promoting allegations that Italy changed the result of the 2020 election.
Someone at a number listed for Goria picked up the phone but hung up after a TPM reporter identified himself, and refused to take further calls.
There was more on Edwards Roosevelt, however. The USAerospace chair also goes by other names: Michele Ballarin, Michele Golden, and Amira Ballarin.
She ran for Congress in 1986 in her native West Virginia under the name Michele Golden on the GOP ticket. Foreign Policy reported in 2013 that during the race, she debated a cardboard cut-out of her opponent with his face pasted on after he didn’t attend a debate.
In a brief phone interview this week, she denied any knowledge of the document that Meadows had forwarded, telling TPM that USAerospace Partners was an American company. When pressed on why a company employee appeared to have written the letter on official letterhead, Ballarin hung up. She did not return emails and calls to multiple addresses, or messages left with her companies.
Zack told TPM in a statement that “we know Michele, we collaborate with her on different projects, but we don’t disclose how we came into possession of evidence or information.”
Ballarin made headlines in 2008 for inserting herself into negotiations with Somali pirates who, at the time, were holding various ships and their crews as hostage. Ballarin’s work incensed the Ukrainian government at one point, according to a 2009 Wikileaks cable, after she became involved in negotiating the release of a ship full of Soviet-made tanks that was being held hostage.
Ukraine’s foreign minister accused Ballarin in a cable to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of “becom[ing] an intermediary of the sea corsairs” and of “incit[ing] the pirates to the groundless increase of the ransom sum.”
More recently, Ballarin has begun to work on potential airline acquisitions. WOW, the Icelandic airline that USAerospace purchased, has now ceased operations. USAerospace reportedly expressed interest in 2020 in purchasing Alitalia, Italy’s state-owned airline.
It remains unclear how, why, and to what extent Ballarin’s companies got involved in the ItalyGate theory, or whether her business involvement in Italy is at all related to the creation of the theory.
USAerospace Partners did not return a request for comment.