For Trump Attorney Jay Sekulow, Getting Rich Off Nonprofit Groups Is A Family Affair

I wrote recently about President Donald J. Trump’s decision to hire Jay Sekulow, a Religious Right attorney best known for running TV preacher Pat Robertson’s legal group the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

Trump’s decision to bring Sekulow on board surprised a lot of observers. While Sekulow has led the ACLJ’s efforts to lower the church-state wall, he’s hardly the kind of attorney Trump needs right now. This was underscored after Sekulow, who’s normally pretty polished in the media, stumbled badly during a recent appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

Jay Sekulow's nonprofits have made him and his family members very wealthy.

Sekulow’s sudden prominence has had an interesting side effect: He has become the subject of a lot of media scrutiny, and some of what’s being dug up isn’t exactly flattering.

The British newspaper The Guardian, for example, recently ran a long story about Sekulow’s business dealings and his use of nonprofit organizations to enrich himself and members of his family. The Washington Post today ran a similar story that quotes former AU attorney Gregory Lipper.

As shocking as these stories are, much of the information in them isn’t new. Legal reporter Tony Mauro reported on the tangled Sekulow web of money back in 2005. What’s remarkable is how the Sekulow family empire has only grown since then.

The Guardian outlines several disturbing facts:

* A law firm co-owned by Sekulow called the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group has received more than $25 million from the ACLJ and Christian Advocate Serving Evangelism (CASE), another Sekulow-run group, for legal services.

* Another Sekulow company, Regency Productions, has made more than $11 million. The group’s primary function is producing Sekulow’s radio show.

* CASE runs an extremely aggressive telephone-based fund-raising operation. Solicitors are given scripts that coach them on how to respond when people say they are too poor to donate. These kinds of high-pressure tactics aren’t uncommon, unfortunately, but CASE’s operation sounds like something from a shady boiler room hawking fraudulent products, not a nonprofit seeking support.

* Sekulow’s wife, Pam, has been paid more than $1 million from CASE for serving as the group’s secretary and treasurer. His brother Gary since 2000 has received more than $9 million for serving as chief operating officer of the ACLJ and CASE. Gary Sekulow’s wife received more than $6 million over the past 17 years for “media production services.”

* Jay Sekulow’s two sons and Gary Sekulow’s son and daughter are also on board the gravy train. The four of them have received nearly $2 million in compensation for various work done since 2000.

* CASE has loaned Sekulow and his wife money to buy properties. The CASE board of directors, which is controlled by members of the Sekulow family, later voted to forgive most of the loans.

The Post story goes into even more detail, noting that Sekulow’s nonprofits “brought in nearly $230 million in charitable donations from 2011 to 2015 – and millions of those dollars ended up going to the members of the Sekulow family or their companies…”

Asked to comment on this level of compensation and the nature of these deals, Arthur Rieman, a California attorney specializing in non-profits, told The Guardian, “I can’t imagine this situation being acceptable. That kind of money is practically unheard of in the nonprofit world, and these kinds of transactions I could never justify.”

Nonprofit groups are tax-exempt for a reason: They are supposed to perform a public good. No one is supposed to get rich running a nonprofit. In fact, there are laws against what’s called “inurement,” that is, using a nonprofit to enrich private parties.

Several tax experts consulted by The Guardian and The Post expressed reservations about the manner in which Sekulow has structured and runs his nonprofits. “It’s more like a family business than a public charity,” Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, told The Post.

No one has proven that Sekulow is breaking the law, but clearly, there’s a lot here for the Internal Revenue Service to look at.

It's high time the tax agency got started on that project.