A nonprofit closely tied to former President Donald Trump and his administration gave millions of dollars in 2020 to an array of conservative groups, a new tax filing from the nonprofit, now called America First Works, shows.
The largest grant to an outside group, nearly $4.8 million, went to Donors Trust, a donor-advised fund often used by conservative megadonors as a conduit for contributions to other nonprofits. The filing notes the money is “fbo [for the benefit of] Honest Ele,” but cuts off the rest of the description, rendering the ultimate recipient unclear.
The information in the disclosure suggests the money could have been for the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group embedded in an opaque network of conservative nonprofits that receives money via Donors Trust. Honest Elections Project advocated against the expansion of access to mail ballots in multiple states last year.
Ashley Hayek, the president of America First Works, provided a copy of the tax filing in response to a request from the Center for Public Integrity, but did not respond to requests for comment. Representatives of the Honest Elections Project did not respond to requests for comment.
Heritage Action for America, whose leader earlier this year privately bragged of helping to craft restrictive state voting laws, got nearly $1 million. The group did not respond to a request for comment.
“The new tax record shines light on how a dark money group with Trump’s imprimatur quietly steered millions of dollars from secret donors to help build up conservative groups in the leadup to the 2020 election,” said Anna Massoglia, an investigative researcher at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
America First Works was previously called America First Policies and changed its name earlier this year, according to a corporate filing in Virginia. The money it gave to Donors Trust and Heritage Action were two of more than $18 million in grants to 17 separate groups the nonprofit reported giving to in 2020, including more than $3.7 million to groups doing voter registration work in the swing states of Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The Center for Public Integrity last year reported America First had disclosed giving to those same groups in 2019 and that state authorities had investigated some of the Florida and North Carolina groups’ contacts with voters, but without ultimately concluding they had engaged in any wrongdoing.
By law, nonprofits such as America First Works can’t have partisan politics as their primary purpose but voter registration and issue advocacy doesn’t count. Nonprofits don’t have to disclose grants until months after the fact, which makes it difficult for the public to know the donors behind a policy push. Their annual tax filings provide a retroactive glimpse into their fundraising and spending.
Access to the ballot was the center of increasingly bitter partisan fighting leading up to the 2020 presidential election. Trump repeatedly attacked mail-in voting as ripe for fraud, but offered no evidence. Allied Republican and conservative groups opposed changes to election laws and procedures meant to make voting easier during the pandemic, often fighting in court.
The Honest Elections Project emerged in 2020, a new name for a group formerly known as the Judicial Education Project and part of a network best known for supporting conservative judicial nominees, including Trump’s nominees, the Center for Responsive Politics and the Guardian reported in a joint investigation last year.
The Honest Elections Project spent $250,000 on ads last year to fight the expansion of mail voting, with some explicitly taking aim at Democrats. It filed briefs in lawsuits in election-related cases in multiple states and used a lawyer that also represented Trump and Republican party groups.
After the election, as Trump alleged widespread fraud, the group’s executive director, Jason Snead, didn’t agree, saying publicly there was “no evidence” of it. He has also condemned the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Snead formerly worked on election integrity issues at the Heritage Foundation.
Donors Trust’s own tax filing, first reported by CNBC this week, includes some smaller grants to the Honest Elections Project, but nothing matching the $4.8 million amount seemingly reported in the America First Works 990. It does disclose a larger $19.9 million grant to the 85 Fund. Corporate filings first reported by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Guardian shows the Honest Elections Project is legally a fictitious name, or an alias, for the 85 Fund.
America First Works also disclosed giving:
- $2.5 million to host committees for the 2020 Republican convention.
- $1.1 million to the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization advocating for LGBT conservatives.
- $350,000 to the Blexit Foundation, a group founded by conservative activist Candace Owens, who urges Black Americans to leave the Democratic party. Last year, the group paid for travel and lodging costs for some attendees at a Trump White House event, according to a report by ABC News.
- $100,000 to an Ohio group called Moms for America, which rallied for Trump before the election. Moms for America also organized a “Save the Republic” rally near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 5 that the group’s president, Kimberly Fletcher, said at the time was not about Trump, but “about election integrity, and if we have no election integrity, we have no Republic.”
- $250,000 to Convention of States Action, a group with Tea Party roots whose main goal is to build support for a convention to rewrite the Constitution to reduce the power of the federal government and enshrine term limits. The group last year worked to provide tools and advice to anti-lockdown protests, Politico reported.
- $20.3 million to America First Action, a related super PAC that spent $133.8 million in support of Trump’s re-election bid during the 2020 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
America First Works’ filing shows it raised nearly $51.3 million from 54 donors in 2020.
Groups on both sides of the partisan divide benefit from millions of dollars in cash given via nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors. Earlier this week, Politico reported that a liberal group, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, gave out more than $400 million in grants to left-leaning organizations with its largest single grant going to America Votes, a group that promotes voter registration and turnout.
Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said America First’s close association with Trump during his presidency “is really unique.”
“There were donors secretly giving millions of dollars to a group directly associated with a sitting president and the money was then spent to help that president stay in office,” Fischer said.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you. Donate now.
Read more in Money and Democracy
Are new voting laws in your state aimed at making voting easier or harder — or both?
Voting access depends on which state voters call home.