The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Low-profile heiress who ‘played a strong role’ in financing Jan. 6 rally is thrust into spotlight

Supporters of President Donald Trump march down Constitution Avenue, toward the U.S. Capitol, on Jan. 6. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Eight days before the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, a little-known Trump donor living thousands of miles away in the Tuscan countryside quietly wired a total of $650,000 to three organizations that helped stage and promote the event.

The lack of fanfare was typical of Julie Fancelli, the 72-year-old daughter of the founder of the Publix grocery store chain. Even as she has given millions to charity through a family foundation, Fancelli has lived a private life, splitting time between her homes in Florida and Italy, and doting on her grandchildren, according to family members and friends.

Now, Fancelli is facing public scrutiny as the House committee investigating the insurrection seeks to expose the financing for the rally that preceded the riot at the U.S. Capitol. Fancelli is the largest publicly known donor to the rally, support that some concerned relatives and others attributed to her enthusiasm for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The Washington Post previously reported that on Dec. 29, 2020, Fancelli donated $300,000 to Women for America First, a nonprofit group that helped organize the Jan. 6 rally, and $150,000 to the nonprofit arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which paid for a robocall touting a march to “call on Congress to stop the steal.”

On the same day, Fancelli gave $200,000 to State Tea Party Express, according to Sal Russo, a top consultant to the conservative group. Russo told The Post last week that he gave the House committee records of Fancelli’s donation, which he said was used for radio ads and social media urging supporters of President Donald Trump to attend the rally and subsequent march. He condemned the violence at the Capitol.

On Wednesday, Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington posted on its website tax filings from the group that showed the donation. The tea party group also provided the filing to The Post.

The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (Video: The Washington Post)

Although much about it remains unknown, the funding of the protests — including travel and hotel expenses for thousands of Trump supporters — has been coming into focus slowly over the past 11 months.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House committee examining the events of Jan. 6, told The Post that he believes Fancelli “played a strong role” in helping to finance the rally. “We’re trying to follow the money,” he said.

Fancelli has not responded to phone calls and emails from The Post since August. She rarely, if ever, speaks to the media about her campaign donations or charity work. She has not commented on her support for the Jan. 6 rally except for a statement 10 months ago, saying, “I am a proud conservative and have real concerns associated with election integrity, yet I would never support any violence, particularly the tragic and horrific events that unfolded on January 6th.”

Her family’s fortune comes from the fast-growing Publix supermarket chain, which has tried to distance itself from Fancelli’s involvement in the rally. Based in her hometown of Lakeland, Fla., Publix touts its reputation for customer service with a decades-old “where shopping is a pleasure” slogan.

After an initial report a few weeks after the rally that Fancelli had donated about $300,000, Publix released a statement saying that she was not involved in the business and that it could not comment on her actions. Last week, after The Post inquired about Fancelli’s contributions totaling $650,000, the company went further, saying it “cannot control the actions of individual stockholders” and issued an unusual rebuke of a member of the founder’s family. Because the company is privately held, Fancelli’s stake — if any — is not a matter of public record.

“We are deeply troubled by Ms. Fancelli’s involvement in the events that led to the tragic attack on the Capitol on January 6,” Publix said in a statement to The Post.

In the weeks leading up to the rally, Fancelli frequently emailed to her relatives and friends links to Jones’s talk show, according to two people with knowledge of the emails who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications. Jones was a leading proponent of false claims that Trump’s reelection had been foiled by election fraud and that Congress could refuse to certify Biden’s victory.

“I don’t want Trump to step down,” Jones said during his show streamed on the Infowars platform on Dec. 28, one day before Fancelli donated to the rally. “Either by overturning the election and showing it’s a fraud and getting Congress to act on Jan. 6 to not certify for Biden, or whether we end up impeaching Joe Biden or getting him arrested as a Chi-Com agent, one way or another, he will be removed.”

Fancelli’s donations related to the rally were arranged by Republican fundraiser Caroline Wren, who was listed on the event permit as a “VIP ADVISOR,” according to records reviewed by The Post and a Republican with knowledge of the contributions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The House committee has issued a subpoena to Wren seeking records and a deposition.

“The funding behind the First Amendment rally at the White House Ellipse was entirely lawful and consistent with the rights Ms. Fancelli has as an American citizen,” Wren said in a statement to The Post.

Fancelli had planned to attend the rally and had a room reserved at the Willard hotel, but she decided not to go because of concerns about traveling during the pandemic, according to the Republican familiar with her donations.

Fancelli was a regular listener to Jones’s show and had an assistant make contact with him at his office in Austin to find out how she could support Trump’s attempt to undermine Biden’s victory, the person said. She and Jones talked by phone at least once between Dec. 27 and Jan. 1, the person said.

“I am not tantalized by that fellow, but apparently she is, and a lot of other people are addicted, to the detriment of the country,” Fancelli’s brother-in-law Barney Barnett, a retired Publix executive who describes himself as a conservative Republican, said in a recent interview with The Post. “Julie is one of the finest people I know, and I am sorry she got tied up with this guy.”

Fancelli’s sister Nancy Jenkins said they avoid talking politics and stick to topics like “the grandchildren and the nieces and nephews and how long she’s coming to Florida for Christmas.”

Of Jones, Jenkins said: “He’s kind of a rabble rouser, and I don’t listen to that. I listen to the regular news. That guy is crazy. Everybody knows Trump lost.”

Jones, who is among dozens of people subpoenaed by the House committee, declined to comment on Fancelli’s involvement.

A few weeks after the rally, top executives of the Republican National Committee called to check on Fancelli, according to a person familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation. Fancelli — who records show had donated roughly $1 million to a joint account for the Trump campaign and Republican Party in 2019 and 2020 — told the RNC executives that she believed the election was stolen and backed the rally “to fight for Trump,” the person said. She also said she had no idea there would be violence at the Capitol, according to the person.

Fancelli has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to GOP candidates and party organizations over the past two decades but did not become a top-tier donor until Trump moved into the White House, records show. She worked with Wren as well as Kimberly Guilfoyle, the partner of Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr.

Guilfoyle declined to comment for this report.

“We’d never heard of her. … She only came into the picture once Trump was president,” the person familiar with the RNC call to Fancelli said. “She is basically just a right-winger, smarter than a lot of donors, but has an affinity for Alex Jones and conspiracy theories and that sort of thing.”

In 2017, Fancelli met with RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and complained that the national party had not done enough to help Trump in the previous year’s election, according to a person familiar with that exchange, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Fancelli also sent party insiders emails supporting conspiracy theories about Trump’s political opponents, the person said.

Her political donations this year suggest continued support for the far right. In September, she gave $5,800 to Rep. Matthew M. Rosendale of Montana, who was among 21 House Republicans who opposed awarding the congressional gold medal to police officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6. In July, Fancelli gave $1,000 to an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Lakeland, Fla., who thanked the right-wing One America News for “correctly” referring to Trump as the president after Biden’s inauguration.

“She’s a wealthy woman who has lived a quiet life, mostly over in Florence, growing olives and grapes,” said Mel Sembler, a longtime Republican fundraiser in Florida who visited Fancelli in Italy when he served as the U.S. ambassador there during the administration of George W. Bush. “A nice lady from a nice family who writes checks for things that she thinks are important. I wonder if she even realized she was writing checks for Jan. 6.”

House committee focuses on law enforcement failures that preceded Jan. 6 attack

Fancelli is one of seven children of George Jenkins, who as a young man quit his job at the local Piggly Wiggly to open his first grocery store in Central Florida in 1930. Today, Publix has nearly 1,300 stores in the Southeast, with net earnings of $4 billion in 2020. Forbes ranked Jenkins’s offspring last year as the 39th richest family in the United States, with an estimated worth of $8.8 billion.

Fancelli owns homes in Lakeland and Longboat Key but has kept a low profile in Florida. Friends and relatives say she spends most of her time in Italy, where she met her husband while studying abroad.

“The bride is a graduate of Mount Vernon Seminary in Washington and the University of Florida,” reads the New York Times announcement of her wedding to Mauro Fancelli in 1972. “ Mr. Fancelli heads his family’s fruit and vegetable wholesale business in Florence, where the couple will live.”

In the late 1980s, she hired a longtime friend of her husband’s, a Florentine named Italo Casini, to be chef of two Italian restaurants she owned at various times in Florida, Casini recalled in a recent interview. “It was a guarantee of good food when she was in Lakeland,” said Casini, who called Fancelli “the sweetest person in the world.” Friends and family members in the United States say she sent them olive oil and wine from Italy.

Fancelli’s charitable giving is done through the George Jenkins Foundation, named after her father. She serves as president of the foundation, which reported net assets of $27.7 million in 2020 and gave more than $3.3 million that year to about two dozen charities that provide education, health care and social services to poor children and the elderly, records show. Public records also show that she co-owns, with other relatives, a private golf club in Lakeland founded by her father.

Fancelli has been registered as a nonpartisan voter in surrounding Polk County since 2001, but, like several members of her family, she has contributed overwhelmingly to Republicans, records show. On top of her large donations to Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020, a company where she was then a director gave $800,000 to a political committee formed by allies of Trump Jr. to support the Republicans in the hotly contested U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia in January.

Fancelli has never served on the Publix board of directors or as a company executive. She previously owned a business that sold millions of dollars worth of food to Publix at a time when family members were running the chain, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Fancelli left that company, Alma Food Imports, Inc., in 2017.

Publix declined to disclose how many shares Fancelli owns in the private company. She does not appear in recent SEC filings that list individuals who own at least 5 percent of the company’s shares. The majority of shares, which are not traded publicly, are owned by employees, from store cashiers to truck drivers.

The company temporarily stopped making campaign donations after survivors of the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school protested Publix’s contributions to the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Adam Putnam, an outspoken National Rifle Association supporter.

As Fancelli’s involvement in the Jan. 6 rally has emerged this year, some Publix shoppers have threatened boycotts on social media. Supermarket analyst David Livingston said Publix’s bottom line is unlikely to suffer because the chain is so popular in the Southeast, especially in Florida.

“People love Publix like people in Wisconsin love the Green Bay Packers,” Livingston said. “While Publix has made their own controversial donations, they are also the first in line to help after a hurricane.”

Russo of State Tea Party Express said he did not solicit the donation from Fancelli but has worked closely in the past with some of the Jan. 6 organizers. The group paid Virginia-based Go BIG Media to promote the rally on social media and bought radio spots targeted at a conservative audience in the D.C. region.

The radio ad did not repeat Trump’s false claims of election fraud but did promote the Jan. 6 rally and march as well a website that featured a “StopTheSteal!” tweet from the president.

Russo said his goal was to “help build the crowd” for Trump, not to try to subvert Biden’s victory.

“We did it for the right reasons, so I don’t regret that,” Russo said. “What I regret the most is that there were people with bad intentions at the Capitol. I am sorry that people got caught up in the emotion.”

Alice Crites and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.

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The Jan. 6 insurrection

Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. In what was likely its final hearing, the committee issued a surprise subpoena seeking testimony from former president Donald Trump. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing moments so far.

Will there be charges? The committee could make criminal referrals of former president Donald Trump over his role in the attack, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview.

What we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6: New details emerged when Hutchinson testified before the committee and shared what she saw and heard on Jan. 6.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6.

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