Jay Sekulow and the culture of non-profit impunity

Well, that didn’t take long. A quick timeline:

June 18: Jay Sekulow emerges as a key Trump lawyer in the Russia investigation, appearing on a round of Sunday talk shows to defend his new client.

June 27: The Guardian, with a big assist from a Law.com article dating back to 2005, publishes a brutal takedown of the way in which Sekulow has seemingly misused a pair of related charities to pay himself and his family laughably huge sums of money.

June 28: The attorneys general of both North Carolina and New York announce that they are opening investigations into Sekulow and his charities.

The investigations are clearly overdue: A good 12 years overdue, it would seem. And that’s surely a large part of the scandal here. Sekulow emerged from bankruptcy in the early 1990s and rapidly built a new career at the political wing of the evangelical movement, embracing a lavish lifestyle (private jets to golf courses, that kind of thing) and becoming a well-known TV talking head. All that politicized exposure was great for fundraising, and – at least after the Law.com article appeared – should equally have brought Sekulow to the attention of the authorities in charge of regulating non-profits.

It’s worth spelling this out. Non-profits are largely unaccountable to anybody, especially when, as in this case, the board of the charity is controlled by the family running it. As a result, the public responsibility to oversee non-profits should be taken very seriously, especially in cases where the non-profit in question has a high profile and is raising tens of millions of dollars a year in small donations. Those donors are never going to get straight answers about what is being done with their money, so the government has to.

But Sekulow bet, correctly, that he would sail on, unscathed. He has many powerful friends (he’s been associated with Pat Robertson for decades, and is deeply connected in Washington), and his charities are religious organizations, which are both politically and practically difficult to oppose. After all, religions have been spending obscene sums of money on themselves for millennia; if the government in its wisdom wants to make such organizations tax-exempt, then the consequences are entirely predictable.

What’s more, Sekulow made his graft hard to find. All non-profits have to file a Form 990, and in most cases payments of this magnitude (more than $60 million, in all, to Sekulow, his family, and his businesses, since 2000) would be quite easy to spot. But most of the payments didn’t come directly from the charity raising the money, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, or Case. Instead, they came from a sister organization, the American Center for Law and Justice, which tended not to advertise itself: when it raised money from individuals, it would do so using the Case name.

None of this would have been hard for a decent attorney general to discover, especially not one with a Law.com subscription. But such people have a lot on their plate, and if people are voluntarily giving millions of dollars to a charity, especially a religious charity, then, well, who is the government to second-guess them. So Sekulow managed to make tens of millions of dollars by calling lots and lots of people with very little money, and persuading them, en masse, to give him what little they had.

The crazy thing is that Sekulow and his lawyers are going to claim, with a straight face, that all of this is perfectly legal. Case and ACLJ are registered non-profits, people can donate to them if they want, and they can spend those donations in accordance with their boards’ wishes. And while I suspect that North Carolina and/or New York are probably going to be able to claim a victory here, that’s going to be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.

Which is to say, if Sekulow hadn’t gotten involved in the all-encompassing political fustercluck that is the Trump-Russia investigation, almost certainly he would have happily kept on raking in the millions from unsuspecting small donors, without consequence. That’s a sign that the problem here isn’t just Sekulow. It’s much bigger than that.

One Reply to “Jay Sekulow and the culture of non-profit impunity”

  1. […] Money is fungible, and charities can do as much good with tainted money as they can with the noblest of donations. That, in turn, means that there’s a strong incentive for philanthropic types to look the other way when money arrives for bad or ugly reasons. So there’s no reason to blame St Jude’s for anything, here. But the rest of us have no reason at all to give the ulterior-motive donors a pass. Everybody associated with the Eric Trump Foundation, including the people who attended its parties, was involved in an extremely skeevy scheme. The good news, I guess, is that thanks to the current salience of the Trump name, prosecutors are now getting involved. Political success can, it turns out, have negative consequences. […]

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