How A Lawyer For Eastern European Oligarchs Fueled The Fever Dream Of An Election Reversal

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 26: President Donald Trump leaves after speaking in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on Thanksgiving on November 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump had earlier made the traditional call... WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 26: President Donald Trump leaves after speaking in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on Thanksgiving on November 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump had earlier made the traditional call to members of the military stationed abroad through video teleconference. (Photo by Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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December 8, 2020 3:02 p.m.

Bruce Marks has a story to tell.

He’s been a consultant this year on President Trump’s futile and ham-handed bid to overturn the results of the election in Pennsylvania.

But Marks, a 63-year old attorney to oligarchs in the former Soviet space and a one-time Pennsylvania state senator, says that he got there by a weird and circuitous path, one that involved Don McGahn, a stolen election, and Trump himself on a helicopter.

Marks represents Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, and, through his firm Marks & Sokolov, has made a career of representing moneyed interests in Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan — so far as they have business to settle in the U.S.

FEC records show that the Trump campaign paid $161,841 to Marks’ firm in the 2020 campaign.

But what drew the Trump campaign to Marks and Marks to the Trump campaign wasn’t his familiarity with the rough-and-tumble world of post-Soviet business.

Rather, it was a bizarre 1994 episode of electoral fraud that led to a unique episode in the annals of American political history: the federal judiciary overturning the results of an already-certified election.

The 1994 absentee ballot fraud scheme bears no resemblance to anything that happened in the 2020 election, but the outcome of the case bears a striking resemblance to what the Trump campaign sought to achieve in federal court: a federal judiciary willing to overturn the results of an already-certified election.

The story reads like a vivid fever dream of Dem-heavy, big city corruption.

Marks ran for state senator as a Republican in 1993 after, Marks told TPM, leading “the legal fight against forced busing in Northeast Philadelphia.”

It was a special election, a low-turnout affair with a high-stakes twist: control of the state Senate, long held by the Democratic party, would hinge on the result.

Local Democrats nominated William Stinson, a bar owner and former Philadelphia assistant deputy mayor, who Marks described as “a party hack ward leader.”

“They came up with a scheme to steal the election with absentee ballots,” Marks told TPM.

According to a subsequent ruling from a federal district judge, that “scheme” involved hundreds of residents submitting fraudulent absentee ballots in favor of Marks’ opponent, allegedly abetted by campaign volunteers.

Two election commissioners later admitted under oath to being aware of the fraud, and a federal court found that the election had been stolen.

Marks told TPM that he had gotten a tip from a local city councilman a few weeks before the election to “watch out” for the issue, which led him to begin checking for fraud.

What resulted was a once-in-a-blue-moon case that was buttressed in part by extensive investigative reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer — a key component, among many, missing from the bogus 2020 claims.

Elections officials gave the paper access to 1,757 absentee votes cast in the election, Marc Duvoisin, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who covered the scandal, told TPM.

Reporters tracked down and interviewed more than 1,500 of the voters — an effort that Duvoisin said involved the paper’s entire metro desk.

Eventually, the Inquirer concluded that 540 of the absentee votes had been contaminated. Voters were called in to testify about what had happened during federal court hearings.

Duvoisin, now the editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Express-News, emphasized that the case bore little resemblance to 2020, in part because absentee voting is much more widely accepted and because the Trump campaign, unlike Marks in 1994, was unable to substantiate any of its claims and has been roundly rejected by the courts.

In February 1994, a federal court validated Marks’ claims, overturning the results of the election post-certification. An appeals court partly upheld the ruling, after ordering the lower court to delay Marks’ certification as the winner until it found that the margin of absentee ballots tampered with likely exceeded the difference by which Marks initially lost.

Marks was seated in the middle of the term, giving Republicans control of the Pennsylvania state Senate.

“That’s being cited in a lot of these pleadings,” Duvoisin told TPM, referring to a federal judge overturning the result in 1994. “The court can do that, but the difference in the Marks case was that there was an abundance of testimony in court by voters.”

After Marks’ victory, Marks invited Trump to a 1994 fundraiser for his re-election.

Trump, Marks said, arrived on a black helicopter, with “Trump” emblazoned on both sides.

“When it landed, it almost took the tents down,” said Marks, who recalled being awestruck by his appearance.

“Before [Trump] went to speak, we got to talking and he asked me what happened in my election,” Marks said. “I told him bad things happen in Philadelphia, how we fought the corrupt Democrat machine, that there were officials who were knowingly participating in the fraud.”

Trump tweeted about it last month, quoting a tweet that cited the New York Times’ coverage of Marks’ race.

“I guess he took notice of it,” Marks deadpanned.

Marks’ comments come as the sun sets on President Trump’s attempts to overturn the election via the courts. Tuesday marks the “safe harbor” deadline by which all state results are certified.

The attorney said that he fell out of touch with Trump after leaving politics, seeing the future President at a few fundraisers here and there but focusing instead on opening an office in Russia for his law firm.

In fact, Marks recalled, it wasn’t until a real estate conference in Moscow that he reconnected with the Trump family.

“Don Jr. was speaking at a real estate event that we were sponsoring in Moscow,” Marks said. “So I interacted with him, explained who I was. It’s a small world. I told him I went to Penn, he went to Penn, his dad went to Penn, I told him how his dad helped me.”

But it wasn’t Marks’ connections to the Trumps that led to the President’s campaign becoming a client. Instead, Marks said, it was Don McGahn.

The 1994 case attracted a lot of attention in GOP circles. Among those who took notice was McGahn, then a law student at Widener University, who came to help, Marks said.

In 2016, McGahn would ask Marks to help the Trump campaign on a Pennsylvania lawsuit brought by the state Democratic party. In 2020, Marks, faced with claims he saw as solid, took Trump’s campaign on as a client once again.

Correction: this article has been updated to reflect that Marks was a consultant, not a litigator for the Trump campaign. 

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