Charities Steered $65M to Trump Lawyer Sekulow and Family - Word&Way

Charities Steered $65M to Trump Lawyer Sekulow and Family

Jay Sekulow
Jay Sekulow

Personal attorney to President Donald Trump, Jay Sekulow, speaks during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (Video capture from Senate Television via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jay Sekulow, one of President Donald Trump’s lead attorneys during the impeachment trial, is being paid for his legal work through a rented $80-a-month mailbox a block away from the White House.

The Pennsylvania Avenue box appears to be the sole physical location of the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group, a for-profit corporation co-owned by Sekulow. The firm has no website and is not listed in national legal directories. The District of Columbia Bar has no record of it, and no attorneys list it as their employer.

But Sekulow, 63, is registered as chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit Christian legal advocacy group based in an expansive Capitol Hill row house a short walk from the Senate chamber.

A half dozen lawyers employed by the non-profit ACLJ are named in recent Senate legal briefs as members of Trump’s defense team — including one of Sekulow’s sons. The ACLJ, as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, is barred under IRS rules from engaging in partisan political activities.

American Center for Law and Justice sign

A sign marks the entrance to the American Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit Christian legal advocacy non-profit, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in Washington. Jay Sekulow, one of President Donald Trump’s lead attorneys during the impeachment trial, is registered as chief counsel at the ACLJ. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Republican National Committee has paid more than $250,000 to Sekulow’s for-profit CLA Group since 2017, when he was first named to Trump’s legal team as special counsel Robert Mueller was leading the Russia investigation, according to campaign disclosures.

Sekulow has been one of Trump’s most visible defenders, enduring as a trusted attorney for the president even as other of his lawyers have been sidelined or entangled in controversy.

In the impeachment trial, he has sought to present Trump as unfairly hounded by investigations, seizing on surveillance errors the FBI acknowledged making in the Russia probe and accusing Democrats of investigating the president over Ukraine simply because they couldn’t bring him down after the Mueller investigation.

Charity watchdogs for years have raised concerns about the blurred lines between for-profit businesses tied to Sekulow and the complex web of non-profit entities he and his family control.

The Associated Press reviewed 10 years of tax returns for the ACLJ and other charities tied to Sekulow, which are released to the public under federal law. The records from 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.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said Sekulow appears to be mixing his defense of Trump with his charitable endeavors. The group has issued a “Donor Alert” about ACLJ on its CharityWatch website.

“Charities are not supposed to be taking sides in partisan political activities, such as providing legal services to benefit a politician in an impeachment trial,” Borochoff said. “Regulators should investigate whether or not charitable resources, such as office, labor, equipment, etc., are being wrongly utilized to benefit Sekulow’s for-profit law firm.”

The address for CLA Group listed in recent court filings matches Carr Workplaces, a flex-space provider that rents out mini offices, individual desks and conference rooms for periods as brief as one hour. According to its website, the company also offers its customers “virtual offices” that include a mailbox and mail forwarding.

A receptionist at the Carr Workplaces office confirmed the law firm’s mail is delivered to a mail slot in a secure room before being forwarded to another location, which she declined to disclose.

A call to Carr last week asking to be connected to CLA Group was forwarded. After a few rings, the call was answered by a receptionist at the non-profit ACLJ.

Inquiries about Sekulow’s for-profit law firm were referred to Gene Kapp, a Virginia public relations contractor paid through the charity.

“Jay Sekulow is serving as a member of the President’s legal team in his personal capacity,” Kapp said in an email. “His work with the President is separate and distinct and is not connected with his work as Chief Counsel of the ACLJ. The ACLJ’s work is separate and distinct from the legal work being done for the President.”

Kapp declined to say whether CLA Group has any support staff or whether Sekulow was doing his legal work for Trump in the non-profit group’s office. Kapp would also not comment on whether CLA Group was reimbursing ACLJ for any resources being utilized for Trump’s legal defense.

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.

Over the 10-year-period examined by AP, the tax returns show nearly $37 million in charitable funds were paid by ACLJ to the CLA Group, the phantom law firm listed on court filings as defending Trump.

Incorporation filings and tax records show Sekulow co-owns CLA Group with his law school classmate and longtime business partner Stuart J. Roth. Roth is also listed as senior counsel at ACLJ and named in recent legal briefs as one of Trump’s defense lawyers.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, is investigating the potential abuse of charitable funds raised by the organizations tied to Sekulow. Spokeswoman Laura Brewer said it was unclear when that probe, begun in 2017, would be complete.

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.

A Brooklyn native, Sekulow graduated from Mercer Law School in Georgia and briefly worked for the Internal Revenue Service before going into private practice in Atlanta with his former classmate Roth in the early 1980s. The pair specialized in buying and selling historic properties as tax shelters, but the business collapsed after disgruntled investors sued them over alleged fraud and securities violations. Court records show both Sekulow and Roth filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1987.

Sekulow quickly remade himself as general counsel for the group Jews for Jesus. A self-described Messianic Jew, Sekulow won a religious liberties case before the U.S. Supreme Court after members of the group were barred from passing out pamphlets at the Los Angeles International Airport.

The following year, records show Sekulow founded the non-profit Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE), a charity “dedicated to the ideal that religious freedom and freedom of speech are inalienable, god given rights.”

In 1992, he was named chief counsel at the ACLJ, which was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson as a conservative counterweight to the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union. It is affiliated with the law school at Regent University, the Christian college founded by Robertson and located next to the studios of his Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Tax records show ACLJ now receives the bulk of its $23 million annual budget from CASE. All six of the charity’s paid board members share the last name Sekulow, including Jay’s wife, Pam, and their sons, Jordon and Logan.

That tight-knit family control runs afoul of standards issued by multiple watchdog groups to help stem the likelihood of self-dealing and graft.

The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance recommends at least five independent board members and not more than one who receives direct financial benefits. Bennett Weiner, who heads the BBB alliance, said it issued an advisory about ACLJ after the organization didn’t respond to requests for more information about its finances.

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, founded 40 years ago by Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders to accredit Christian non-profits, requires independent boards of directors made up of people “not related by blood or marriage to staff members.” CASE and ACLJ are not listed among the council’s 2,400 members.

As Sekulow has positioned himself among Trump’s chief defenders in both the courtroom and as a legal analyst on Fox News, CASE has continued to raise more than $50 million annually through an aggressive mix of telemarketing and direct mail soliciting the conservative faithful to support ACLJ’s courtroom advocacy.

But tax records show much of that money is routed to Sekulow and his family. Over the 10-year period examined by AP, more than $12 million was paid in direct salary and benefits to Sekulow and his family members.

Gary Sekulow, Jay’s 61-year-old brother, was paid a total of $985,947 in salary and benefits in 2017 as the chief operating and financial officer at both ACLJ and CASE — two full-time positions that tax documents indicate would require him to work 80 hours each week.

Adam Sekulow, Gary’s 31-year-old son, was paid $229,227 as the director of development at CASE and $65,052 as the director of major donors at ACLJ the same year.

Records show millions more each year going to for-profit companies controlled by the family. In addition to the $5.8 million ACLJ paid to CLA Group in 2017, $1.4 million was paid to Regency Productions, a company owned by Jay Sekulow that receives his fees for appearing on the radio show “Jay Sekulow Live!” and his television show “ACLJ This Week with Jay Sekulow,” which airs on the same Christian network as Pat Robertson’s “The 700 Club.”

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.

Sekulow’s show is often recorded at a studio located at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of ACLJ. Tax records show the office building, with a current assessed value of $3.8 million, is owned by CASE. The charity controlled by the Sekulow family also owns the spacious four-bedroom, four-bath row house next door, which has a current assessed value of $1.8 million.

This week, an AP photographer saw Jay’s son Jordan Sekulow, 37, entering the residence. A graduate of Regent law school, Jordan Sekulow is the executive director of ACLJ, a member of Trump’s defense team, and also hosts his father’s radio show. ACLJ’s website and affiliated YouTube channel have been posting daily updates about the impeachment trial, reiterating GOP arguments and hammering Democratic House managers.

Jordan’s wife, Anna Sekulow, 36, also works at the charity as a digital media adviser, according to its website. The public tax records do not indicate how much they are paid.

About $6.8 million went to the company PFMS of Georgia for producing Sekulow’s shows. That company’s website lists Gary Sekulow’s wife, Kimberly Sekulow, 60, as president and CEO. The address for that business is in the same suburban Atlanta building listed on tax returns as the offices for CASE, the charity that pays it.

In addition to his two paid jobs at the non-profits, the couple’s son Adam Sekulow is listed as the acquisition manager at PFMS. His sister Jennifer Sekulow, 27, is the head of market research.

The records show at least $1.2 million was spent by the charities on private jets, including an unusual arrangement where CASE was paying to lease a plane co-owned by the for-profit companies controlled by Jay Sekulow and his sister-in-law.

The tax records show millions more were routed into numerous non-profit and for-profit entities, which makes it challenging to determine who is really getting the money.

For example, ACLJ and CASE made payments to the Law & Justice Institute, a non-profit entity created by Sekulow and Roth. Tax records show that charity’s only activity was to make annual payments to two for-profit companies, Advocacy Services Inc. and Educational Resources Associates.

Virginia incorporation records list “M.G. Robertson” of Virginia Beach as the president and director of Advocacy Services, which received $4 million in payments. Marion Gordon Robertson, 89, is better known to TV viewers by his nickname, Pat.

Incorporation filings for Education Resources Associates in Washington, D.C, list its CEO as John Ashcroft, who served as U.S. attorney general in the administration of President George W. Bush. That company got $2.2 million in consulting fees from the charitable Law & Justice Institute. Ashcroft, 77, is listed as a distinguished professor at Regent University and has appeared with Sekulow at ACLJ events.

Marc Owens, who served for 10 years as the director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service, said the structure of the charities and corporations controlled by the Sekulow family appeared designed to obscure just who is getting paid and how much.

Federal law forbids charities from excessively benefiting those who have “substantial influence over the organization.” Owens said both the IRS and state attorneys general should investigate.

“This is an apparent web of organizations that seem to exist to pay compensation to Sekulow and his family members,” said Owens, who is now in private practice. “That pattern clearly raises questions for those entities that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) as to whether they’re operating for a public benefit or the private benefit of Jay Sekulow and his family members.”

Sekulow’s spokesman denied any wrongdoing.

“The financial arrangements between ACLJ, CASE and other entities have been reviewed by outside independent experts and are in compliance with all tax laws,” Kapp said.

Asked who those outside experts are and whether AP could speak with them, Kapp responded that he didn’t have anything to add.

Associated Press reporter Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.