In North Carolina, Local Labs wanted obscure voter records that would take weeks, or even months, to prepare. In Georgia, the company requested a copy of every envelope voters used to mail in their ballots. And in dozens of counties across the U.S., Local Labs asked for the address of every midterm voter.
Local election offices across the country are struggling to manage a sharp rise in the number of public records requests, and extensive requests coming from Local Labs in at least five states have stymied election officials, according to a Votebeat review of hundreds of records requests, as well as interviews. The requests are broad and unclear, and the purpose for obtaining the records is often not fully explained, leaving officials wondering in some cases whether they can legally release the records.
Local Labs is known for a massive network of websites that rely mainly on aggregation and automation, blasting out conservative-leaning hyper-local news under names such as the Old North News, in North Carolina, and Peach Tree Times, in Georgia.
Local Labs CEO Brian Timpone told Votebeat the company is using records requests in an attempt to expose election fraud that he is sure exists. The company is sometimes getting paid by GOP-backed clients to do so, Timpone acknowledged, characterizing the work simultaneously as both political research and journalism.
“We’re just trying to push for more free speech and more transparency,” Timpone said. “And no one else is doing it.”
Veteran journalists and those who study journalism ethics say he’s wrong. Arizona State University journalism professor Julia Wallace — previously the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — said doing reporting and paid-for work at the same time is not ethical. “That’s not independent, so that’s not journalism,” she said.
Timpone is no stranger to journalism controversies: Among his previous companies was one that sold cheap content to local news organizations and was ultimately closed after a series of ethics scandals, including plagiarism.