Trump’s Dark Money Machine Gets a Makeover—and New Owners

Trump’s Dark Money Machine Gets a Makeover—and New Owners 1

While ex-President Donald Trump spent the last year licking his election wounds and consolidating power in the Republican Party, his allies were busy reconfiguring a constellation of outside spending groups that have helped bankroll his political movement for years.

Trump’s influential “dark money” machine appears to have almost entirely turned over, capping the overhaul off with the apparent sale of a pro-Trump nonprofit earlier this year, The Daily Beast has learned.

The changing of the guard at the nonprofit, formerly known as America First Policies, illustrates how difficult it is to get a clear picture of the outside money fueling Trump’s movement. It reflects a turbulent year within the circle of Trump’s top advisers and fundraising chiefs, but also casts another layer of opacity over millions of dollars in already obscured donations the group made to controversial far-right causes in 2020, as Trump fought to cling to the White House.

Whatever your views of so-called ‘dark money’ may be, these groups are further obscuring money flows.

Lloyd Mayer, University of Notre Dame

Lloyd Mayer, an expert in nonprofit law at the University of Notre Dame, cast these anti-transparency developments as “troubling,” saying they strike at the heart of federal sunshine laws.

“Whatever your views of so-called ‘dark money’ may be, these groups are further obscuring money flows,” he said.

How the money flows was already in little danger of becoming too clear.

America First Policies, a nonprofit which does not have to disclose its donors, was the core of a pro-Trump dark money network, with an organizational scheme that seems confusing by design.

If you were looking for an illustration of how difficult it is to track how these groups operate, America First Policies offers a prime example.

According to IRS records first obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, America First Policies filed to change its name to America First Works in October. But on Friday, a spokesperson for America First Works told The Daily Beast it wasn’t a name change—America First Policies had been “sold” to America First Works “in a private deal” earlier this year, he said.

“This is a different organization, under completely new ownership,” the spokesperson said. He declined to reveal the selling price.

Asked about the sale, Mayer said he did not understand exactly what the spokesperson was trying to say.

“Nonprofits generally do not have owners as a matter of state law, so I am not sure what they mean by ‘sold,’” Mayer said. “Nonprofits can sell their assets, including their name, as long as they do so for fair market value,” he explained, but pointed out that in this instance, “the nonprofit itself would have received the proceeds.”

“Control of a nonprofit can change, but the persons originally in control generally cannot sell control, as they do not own an equity interest,” he continued, noting that the rules would also depend on where the nonprofit was incorporated and what its governing documents provide.

The sale also shows that the byzantine pro-Trump dark money machine is reconfiguring itself ahead of the 2022 midterms, as well as Trump’s possible candidacy in 2024.

According to tax records, Ashley Hayek is president of America First Works. Hayek’s LinkedIn page says she is also the “chief engagement officer” for the America First Policy Institute—another Trump-aligned group that sprung up earlier this year, and boasts a number of former administration and campaign officials on its roster.

It appears that the walls between the groups are thin. Last month, CNBC reported that America First Works has joined forces with AFPI, which is backing Trump’s lawsuit against social media companies.

Over the course of the year, these groups appear to have fully replaced the old infrastructure.

America First Policies was co-founded in 2017 by some of Trump’s top administration and campaign officials. It soon gave rise to a sister super PAC called America First Action, and the two entities were so close that they shared office space and even employees.

But in August, The Daily Beast reported that America First Action was also winding down, throwing its resources to the new Make America Great Again Action super PAC—a move which appears to have reflected the changing allegiances among Trump’s inner circle at the time.

All the confusion has one immediate upshot: It makes it even more difficult to understand who exactly is responsible for millions of dollars in shady grants that America First Policies doled out last year.

Those grants appeared in the tax report covering America First Policies’ activity last year, which was filed by America First Works and first obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. Some of the listed recipients have been tied to voter-suppression activity, and one of them is a hotbed for bigoted anti-LGTBQ rhetoric.

But paper trails vanish almost immediately, with some entities appearing to have evaded scrutiny after failing to file tax reports for several years—a pattern which raised concerns among experts in nonprofit law.

Robert Maguire, who tracks outside spending groups at government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the filing illustrates how political machines like the Trump network can shield controversial affiliations from public view.

“The nature of what they’re doing is legal, but they’re also absorbing the expenses and establishing distance from the actions of groups that could be seen as controversial. It gives the party and the campaign plausible deniability,” Maguire told The Daily Beast.

Take one recipient—Vision America Mobilized, a nonprofit which got half a million dollars from America First Policies last year, according to its tax filing.

Despite that donation, no group called “Vision Mobilized America” appears in the IRS database. That’s because the entity changed its name several years ago, to Million Voices Inc, a faith-based organization headquartered in Texas which does not appear to have filed with the IRS since 2016, according to the agency’s public database.

Mayer explained that groups sometimes change names to slough off negative publicity, allowing them “to distance themselves from bad press.” He noted that white supremacist groups—such as Identity Evropa—have tried this strategy.

And it turns out that Vision America Mobilized does indeed carry a dark past. But by listing the wrong name, America First Works blew the group’s cover—and possibly its own.

Vision America’s founder, Texas-based pastor Rick Scarborough, has a history of bigoted anti-LGBTQ statements. In 2013, he floated the idea of a class-action lawsuit against the gay community for “subjecting people to becoming AIDS sufferers.” Two years later, Scarborough—who once threatened to light himself on fire if the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage (spoiler: he did not)—called AIDS “God’s judgment on a sinful generation,” according to video posted by Right Wing Watch.

Vision America founder and President Rick Scarborough.

Alex Wong/Getty

Scarborough is listed as a board member on the disclosure that Million Voices filed in 2016. He’s also a director for another nonprofit at the same address, called Vision America Action, whose last available tax return is from 2018.

However, Million Voices hasn’t filed a tax return since 2016. The IRS automatically revokes a group’s tax status if they fail to file returns for three years. Still, the disclaimer on its donations portal claims the group is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization.

“I don’t know why this organization hasn’t had their status revoked,” Mayer said, upon reviewing the filings. “The IRS has over the years revoked hundreds of thousands of groups based on the three-year statute. The only speculation is that the IRS is so overwhelmed and under-resourced that, together with the demands of getting money out the door for COVID relief last year, it has fallen behind on this task.”

The America First Works spokesperson declined to comment on the grants, and, upon divulging the recent sale, referred questions back to America First Policies.

The Daily Beast reached out to Brian Walsh, former head of America First Policies, who declined comment. Million Voices did not respond to a request for comment.

“The IRS is terrible at keeping track of entities supposed to be filing tax returns,” Maguire said. “You can have these shell groups where, if the IRS did conduct some analysis, they might find they’re in violation. But when they do go after them, the IRS often gets accused of some sort of political witch hunt, so it shies away from that activity.”

The group’s largest gift, about $4.8 million, went to a conservative dark-money clearinghouse called Donors Trust. It appears to have been earmarked for something called the “Honest Elections Project,” a dark-money group which has been tied to voter suppression efforts. (Its website domain was at one point apparently quite open about this goal: hardtovote.honestelections.org.)

Last year, the Honest Elections Project also filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court laying out a scheme in which state legislatures could unilaterally overturn election results.

However, the Donors Trust filing does not show contributions adding up to anything like America First’s $4.8 million—the Honest Elections Project only got $170,000, per the filing.

Asked about this discrepancy, the America First Works spokesperson replied, “Huh.”

But this trail twists again. Donors Trust reported that all its grants to the Honest Election Project had actually gone through another group first, The 85 Fund. But even that relationship is misleading—documents obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics show that The 85 Fund actually is the Honest Elections Project.

That relationship is a cakewalk compared to another voter-suppression group America First Policies supported last year—a flat $2 million contribution to an “election integrity” group called Be Counted, with almost no public footprint whatsoever.

Outside of a CREW report from 2016, which details a voter-shaming campaign which individuals and local officials described at the time as “creepy” and “a form of intimidation,” Be Counted appears in hardly any press. The group appears tied to the Republican Governors Association, according to its most recent IRS filing, from 2019, which lists a slate of directors affiliated with the RGA.

But it turns out that, like Million Voices, Be Counted also appears to have changed its name. In 2019, it became Be Registered LLC, but with no 2020 tax filing on the books for either group, it’s unclear whether America First Policies contributed yet again to a group under an incorrect name.

Yet another beneficiary, Ohio-based Moms for America, has also not filed a return since 2018. Moms for America held Trump rallies ahead of the election, and helped organize the “Save the Republic” rally by the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 5. It got $100,000 from America First last year.

Of course, the Trump money machine has never been easy to follow. But the connections appear even blurrier now that Trump is out of office. And thanks to IRS filing deadlines, voters may not know what these groups are currently up to until next November, after the midterms.

“Timing matters,” Mayer said. “The longer it takes for the information to come out, the less it’s on the public’s mind. And by delaying flings and obscuring who these groups are, that information only gets older and colder and staler. Even if it all comes out accurately and on time in 2022, it still may not make the news.”