Saturday, February 1, 2020

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's defense attorneys, receives $65 million in charitable funds

Yesterday the Associated Press published a most interesting article by Michael Biesecker. It is long. Here, I've summarized and reorganized the information.

Although the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), "as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, is barred under IRS rules from engaging in partisan political activities," nevertheless a half-dozen ACLJ lawyers, including its chief counsel Jay Sekulow and his son, are part of Trump's legal defense team in the impeachment. "Charity watchdogs for years have raised concerns," the AP story explains, "about the blurred lines between for-profit businesses tied to Sekulow and the complex web of non-profit entities he and his family control."

An AP investigation "of tax returns for the ACLJ and other charities tied to Sekulow" found that between "2008 to 2017, the most recent year available, show that more than $65 million in charitable funds were paid to Sekulow, his wife, his sons, his brother, his sister-in-law, his nephew and corporations they own." The American Institute of Philanthropy's CharityWatch website placed a “Donor Alert” about the ACLJ.

One problem is with the way the charities are structured and led. In 1988, "Sekulow founded the non-profit Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE)," which fundraises over $50 million each year, "more than $12 million was paid in direct salary and benefits to Sekulow and his family members." Furthermore, "ACLJ now receives the bulk of its $23 million annual budget from CASE. All six of the [ACLJ] charity’s paid board members share the last name Sekulow, including Jay’s wife, Pam, and their sons, Jordon and Logan." This runs afoul of the Better Business Bureau's recommendation for the independence of board members; accordingly, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance has an advisory about ACLJ. Similarly, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability requires independent boards, and "CASE and ACLJ are not listed among the council’s 2,400 members."

Another problem is with their connection to political work. Money for the Trump defense is being paid to the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group (CLA Group), a for-profit "phantom law firm" whose contact information is a virtual or "flex-space" rented location. It is co-owned by Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at ACLJ, and Stuart J. Roth, senior counsel at ACLJ, both of who are Trump's defense lawyers. When contacted by the Associated Press, a PR professional paid by the ACLJ claimed that Sekulow's work for the president is done in Sekulow's "personal capacity" and has nothing to do with the ACLJ. (However, between 2008 and 2017, as the AP notes, "nearly $37 million in charitable funds were paid by ACLJ to the CLA Group." Of that, $5.8 million was paid in 2017 alone.) This same PR professional would not say "whether Sekulow was doing his legal work for Trump in the non-profit group’s office" nor whether ACLJ was being reimbursed by the CLA Group for anything related to the Trump defense.

These problems are related. The combined problem is that Jay Sekulow does political work, and the charities' money goes to Jay Sekulow and his colleagues. In 2017, ACLJ paid $1.4 million to Regency Productions, which receives Sekulow's fees for radio and television appearances. "Over the 10-year period reviewed by AP, CLA Group and Regency were paid a combined $46 million in charitable funds by ACLJ and CASE. Millions more were paid by the charities for 'airtime,' though the recipients of that money were not detailed in the tax records." The charities spent $1.2 million on private jets, plus millions of dollars "routed into numerous non-profit and for-profit entities, which makes it challenging to determine who is really getting the money." Some money was funneled to corporations headed by evangelical television personality Pat Robertson and former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft.

From the AP story:

A 2005 investigation by the publication Legal Times reported about questionable spending at ACLJ, quoting former employees describing millions in charity funds being spent to support the Sekulows’ lavish lifestyle, which included multiple homes, golf junkets, chauffeur-driven cars and a private jet used to ferry then-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The Guardian and The Washington Post reported additional details in 2017, shortly after Sekulow was named as Trump’s lawyer.

Sekulow joined Trump's legal team during the Mueller investigation in 2017. Since that time, his CLA Group has received over $250,000 from the Republican National Committee. Also since 2017, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has been investigating the abuse of charitable funds related to Sekulow.

Trump, of course, is also under scrutiny for his own corruption. From the AP story:

Trump, Sekulow’s star client, has faced similar legal questions. Trump agreed to pay $2 million as part of a settlement with the state of New York in which he was forced to admit he misused charitable funds from the Donald J. Trump Foundation to promote his 2016 presidential campaign, pay off business debts and buy a $10,000 portrait of himself hung at one of his Florida resorts. Trump’s charity also cut an illegal $25,000 check to support the reelection of then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who now works with Sekulow as a member of the president’s defense team.

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