Amidst the barrage of lawless conduct by our ”law and order” president and his allies, it is easy to forget that America faced a government ethics crisis long before Donald Trump took the oath of office. The outsized role of special interest money on our elections exacerbates systemic racism and economic inequality. While it is now obvious that many of President Trump’s corrupt actions threaten Black lives and livelihoods, recent events remind us of how the continued unchecked flow of money in politics harms our communities as well.
When special interests and wealthy individuals funnel unlimited amounts of money into our political system, it dilutes our voice and undermines the hard fought battles for voting rights waged by our civil rights heroes. Those concerns remain even if those monied influence peddlers look like us. In 2017, two of President Trump’s highest profile Black surrogates, Pastor Darrell Scott and Kareem Lanier founded the Urban Revitalization Coalition (URC), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission was “to create sustainable solutions to urban challenges.” When they applied for URC’s tax-exempt status, Scott and Lanier told the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) they planned “to develop programs in areas of housing, finance, education and training, strengthening families, criminal justice reform, community policy and healthcare.” Three years later, the organization has been plagued by scandal, lost its tax exempt status and effectively closed its doors. In recent months, Scott and Lanier have been accused of using their organization to promote Trump’s political agenda to Black voters and as a conduit for Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to influence our government.
Creating solutions for “urban challenges” and addressing racial disparities in housing, healthcare and criminal justice are laudable goals. Unfortunately, URC did little of what it told the IRS it would for the “urban” community, and instead violated the law as a 501(c)(3) organization. In its application for tax-exempt status, URC indicated it would “not support or oppose candidates in political campaigns in any way,” engage in propaganda, or attempt to influence legislation. But in 2018, URC held voter registration drives aimed at increasing Trump’s share of the Black vote. That year, Scott and Lanier also became involved in a “foreign influence campaign … aimed at shaping U.S. policy in anticipation of an overarching trade deal with Turkey.” URC’s application also indicated that it would not provide “funds to individuals” or operate raffles, but in late 2019 launched a nationwide strategy of holding raffle events “in Black communities where they lavish praise on the president while handing out thousands of dollars in giveaways” (the infamous “Cash for Blacks” scheme). Meanwhile, President Trump has continued promoting URC’s founders as integral parts of his agenda and campaign.
How did URC stray so far from its mission to address challenges facing the urban (read: Black and minority) community? Unsurprisingly, the key is to follow the money. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, URC does not have to publicly disclose all of its donors, though it is required to provide the IRS with a tax return that would reveal information like its top donors and highest paid employees. URC does not appear to have made that information available. However, public records from a politically active group backing Trump’s reelection, America First Policies (AFP), indicate that in 2018, AFP donated $238,000 to URC. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates for special interests to inject unlimited cash in our elections with limited disclosure. The costly loopholes in our system become apparent when politically active non-profit groups like AFP donate funds to 501(c)(3) non-profit groups like URC that “are not supposed to engage in any political activities.”
While recent public reports indicate know that URC’s founders used their organization to "solicit donations" from wealthy Turkish nationals and facilitated a “foreign influence campaign on behalf of powerful people in Turkey,” without URC’s tax returns, we still have no idea how much money, if any, it spent on boosting “urban” America. Of course, URC isn’t the only prominent example of monied interests using a Black vessel to serve their own political interests.
Though I’ve spent the last few years trying to ignore Kanye West, recent events have forced me to break that promise to myself. As a non-partisan ethics watchdog, and a thinking Black person, I won’t discuss the merits of Kanye’s candidacy for president. But his ascendance as an apparent “spoiler” candidate for Black voters raises significant concerns about the influence of untraceable money on our elections. Many of the political operatives supporting Kanye’s candidacy have ties to politically active groups that hide their donors. For example, CNN reported that an Ohio-based political advocacy group that shares a “Republican-allied law firm” with West's campaign is sending misinformation on Democratic candidates to voters in key battleground states. While Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, asked for “compassion and empathy” regarding his mental health issues following his recent erratic outbursts, politically aligned organizations and consultants continue to cynically exploit Kanye for their own purposes.
Money in politics is not a partisan issue. Unaccountable and unchecked money exists on all sides of the political spectrum. The unscrupulous actions of President Trump’s cronies at URC and those surreptitiously supporting Kanye’s “spoiler” effort are the latest examples of how the money drowning our political system exacerbates white supremacy. When these grifters are allowed to operate in secret, it ensures that our government works only for a select few, and certainly not for Black folks and allies fighting for systemic change. Every election is important for Black America, but curbing the flow of money in politics is essential to racial progress regardless of which candidates win in November.
Donald Sherman is the Deputy Director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.