President Donald Trump walks off after speaking at a campaign rally in Florida on Oct. 12, 2020.

Barriers to the Ballot Box

Published — November 19, 2020

Trump-backing nonprofit gave millions to groups registering voters in swing states, tax filing shows

President Donald Trump walks off after speaking at a campaign rally at Orlando Sanford International Airport, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Sanford, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In Florida and North Carolina, the nonprofits drew scrutiny from authorities.

Introduction

A nonprofit created to support President Donald Trump and his administration gave more than $2 million in 2019 to newly formed groups whose contacts with voters came under investigation in both Florida and North Carolina this year, according to a new tax filing from the group, America First Policies. 

America First Policies’ president is named Brian Walsh. The group gave grants to three nonprofits — Florida First, North Carolina First and Pennsylvania First — all of which list a director named Brian Walsh, according to incorporation records filed in Texas. 

America First Policies gave the three fledgling nonprofits nearly $2.3 million collectively, according to America First Policies’ 990 tax filing. 

By law, nonprofits such as America First Policies can’t have partisan politics as a primary purpose, but there’s no prohibition against spending money on voter registration work. In June 2019, America First Policies announced it would seek to spend more than $20 million registering voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia in advance of the 2020 elections.

The three groups that received grants — Florida First, Pennsylvania First and North Carolina First, one formed in July 2019 and two formed in September 2019, according to the Texas incorporation records — appear to have been part of that effort, and the new tax filing confirms the links between the groups and the extent of America First Policies’ initial support. All three groups had nearly identical websites.

“America First’s operatives are hiding behind state-themed entities that give the appearance of being homegrown operations when, in actuality, the effort appears to be orchestrated by the dark money arm of Trump’s outside political operation of choice,” said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. “The extra layers of opacity keep the group’s ties to a political operation endorsed by Trump himself largely hidden.”

The Center for Responsive Politics obtained a copy of the tax filing and shared it with the Center for Public Integrity.  A spokeswoman for America First Policies later provided a separate copy of the document but did not respond to emails requesting comment. America First Policies has previously confirmed contributing to Florida First.

America First Policies is affiliated with the super PAC America First Action and the two groups also share leadership. The groups are technically independent of Trump and his campaign, but the president himself has endorsed the super PAC. His campaign last year issued a statement calling it the “one approved outside non-campaign group.”

Earlier this year, voters contacted the North Carolina State Board of Elections to report strange calls involving their voter registration, according to a report by North Carolina station WBTV. Investigators for the state board of elections initially contacted a lawyer for a similarly named North Carolina-based group, who said his client wasn’t involved. That lawyer filed a complaint with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office, saying he had also received complaints about the Texas-based group’s outreach to voters, WBTV reported

WBTV reported that investigators for the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office reached out to the Texas-based group and subsequently forwarded information to the office of the state attorney general, but the investigations appear to have fizzled out. A spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office said it does not have an active investigation into the group. Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said the board has received no additional information or complaints about North Carolina First.

The new America First Policies tax filing shows the Texas-based North Carolina First group received a $325,000 grant in 2019. 

Florida First, the most high-profile of the three groups, got the biggest grant from America First Policies: $1.51 million. But Florida First’s voter registration push hit controversy last March, when authorities said more than 100 voter registration forms submitted by the group had forged signatures, unauthorized party registration switches and other problems. Authorities charged a canvasser for the group with 10 felony counts of submitting false voter registration information, but said they did not believe Florida First itself was engaged in or encouraging fraud. 

The group had submitted nearly 50,000 voter registration forms in the Sunshine State as of August 2020, the Tampa Bay Times reported. By October, Republicans were pointing to voter registration numbers as a strong sign for them in Florida, a state Trump ultimately won. 

Florida First had registered with the Florida Secretary of State’s office as a third-party organization conducting voter registration in the state, but the email address provided to the state is no longer active and no one responded to a phone message requesting comment. The organization is currently listed as inactive in the database maintained by the Florida Division of Corporations. 

The third group, Pennsylvania First, appears to have drawn little public attention. It received a $450,000 grant from America First Policies, according to the tax filing.

America First Policies’ disclosure also shows it raised about $30.8 million from 31 contributors in 2019, though the nonprofit is not required to publicly disclose the identity of its donors. Two of those contributions — for $5 million each — made up about a third of the total raised, and 16 contributors gave at least $1 million. 

Read more in Money and Democracy

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