Democratic tech strategists distance themselves from secretive firm behind Iowa app fiasco

WASHINGTON — The company now being blamed for the phone app malfunction that has kept the results of the Iowa caucuses from being fully tabulated once ran its operations from a WeWork co-working space on a rapidly gentrifying stretch of Florida Avenue in Washington, D.C.

A WeWork front desk employee greeted a Yahoo News reporter with a knowing smile on Tuesday afternoon. A question about Shadow was no surprise to him. 

Shadow had moved out, he said, but he did not know exactly when. The WeWork office on Florida Avenue is the listed physical address for the company, which was registered in Colorado just a few months ago.

As reports emerged that Shadow designed the Iowa caucus mobile phone application that malfunctioned Monday night, officials from another tech company affiliated with Barack Obama’s former campaign manager immediately attempted to distance themselves from the unfolding disaster.

“Acronym is an investor in several for-profit companies,” said Kyle Tharp, a spokesman for the digital nonprofit, in a statement. “One of those independent, for-profit companies is Shadow, Inc., which also has other private investors.”

But the relationship between Shadow and Acronym is closer than that statement suggests. 

Tara McGowan, CEO of Acronym, said just a few days ago that her company was the “sole investor” in Shadow. She made the comment in an episode of “FWIW,” a podcast she hosts, that was posted Jan. 30

And Gerard Niemira, Shadow’s CEO, worked at Acronym before leaving to start Shadow. He listed himself on his LinkedIn page as chief operating officer at Acronym for three months last spring, and as the group’s chief technology officer for a year prior to that. 

Last January, Acronym announced that it was “launching Shadow, a company focused on building the technology infrastructure needed to enable Democrats to run better, more efficient campaigns.”

Now it appears to be downplaying that history. The Daily Beast reported Tuesday afternoon that Acronym had changed the language on its website since the caucus debacle to minimize its relationship with Shadow.

Despite that, the entities appear to be linked through more than just funding. For example, according to Shadow’s Colorado business records, the mailing address listed for the company in Virginia is the same as that of the treasurer for Pacronym, a relatively new Democratic super-PAC — started by Acronym — that places online ads.

Messages to McGowan and Tharp seeking comment went unreturned. 

The Iowa Democratic Party caucus app on an iPhone. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Gene J. Puskar/AP, Getty Images)

David Plouffe, who ran Obama’s two presidential campaigns, joined the Acronym board in September, raising its profile in an effort to counter the formidable online presence of President Trump’s reelection campaign.

Plouffe was asked about Shadow on MSNBC by Chris Hayes Monday night. 

“I didn’t know about it,” Plouffe said. “In my relationship with Acronym, which has been going on for a few months, I have no knowledge of Shadow.”

Niemira, Shadow’s CEO, worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. On LinkedIn he described his work there as leading “the small but mighty team in charge of all of the campaign’s tools for field organizers and volunteers.”

One of the questions now being raised is why the Iowa Democratic Party chose Shadow, a new firm with no track record, to build the app. According to the company’s business license, the company officially started business only in September 2019, and was reportedly given the contract for the app only two months ago.

A cybersecurity expert familiar with the matter said that there was no large-scale testing of the app before the event, and that 60 days was an unreasonable amount of time to develop something functional. 

The failure falls on “the Iowa Democratic chair and the DNC,” the expert told Yahoo News.

On Tuesday afternoon, the official Twitter handle for Shadow sent a message apologizing for the role its mobile app played in the Iowa caucus fiasco. It appears to be the first and only official statement from the company, which has not responded to a request for comment.

“We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers,” the company said

Jenna McLaughlin contributed reporting 

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