The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow’s family has been paid millions from charities they control

Jay Sekulow speaks at a presidential candidate forum at Regent University in Virginia Beach on Oct. 23, 2015. (Steve Helber/AP)

President Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow was on his weekday radio show earlier this month, defending the president vociferously, when he took a pause to highlight a charity that has brought Sekulow and his family millions of dollars.

“Let me take off the hat of the president’s lawyer and put on the ACLJ hat,” he said, using the acronym for the American Center for Law and Justice. His June 16 program then cut to a plea for donations from audience members listening on 850 stations nationwide. “Now, more than ever,” a narrator said, “you need the ACLJ on your side.”

The segment illustrates how Sekulow, the most visible member of the legal team defending Trump in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, is poised to capitalize on his new role.

Before Trump hired him, Sekulow had built a powerful charity empire, leading a team of ACLJ attorneys who jump into high-profile court battles over such hot-button conservative issues as religious liberties and abortion. The ACLJ promotes its work zealously, noting that its representation is free of charge and dependent on the donations of supporters.

That 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, a Washington Post analysis of IRS tax filings and business records in five states and the District found.

Through a complex arrangement involving ACLJ and another charity, $5.5 million was paid directly to Sekulow and five family members in salary or other compensation, tax records covering those years show. Another $7.5 million went to businesses owned by Sekulow and his sister-in-law for producing and consulting on TV, movie and radio shows, including his weekday program, "Jay Sekulow Live!" And $21 million went to a small law firm co-owned by Sekulow, records show.

The public face of the two nonprofits is the ACLJ, the charity started by televangelist Pat Robertson in 1990 and known for its defense of Christian causes before the Supreme Court. Sekulow is its chief counsel.

But in 2011, the ACLJ formalized an arrangement that first routes donations solicited in its name to the other nonprofit, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, tax filings show. The latter charity is controlled entirely by Sekulow, his wife and his two sons, who serve as the only voting members on the board. The ACLJ relies on the family-run charity for nearly its entire budget, $53 million in 2015, meaning the Sekulows effectively control both charities, nonprofit experts said.

Sekulow and his family members did not respond to messages seeking comment.

There has been no accusation that either charity has violated federal law, which bars people with influence over nonprofits from deriving “excess benefits” from them. Robertson, who remains president of the ACLJ board, defended the arrangement in a statement to The Post.

Independent accountants review the nonprofits annually, Robertson said, and the IRS has found them to be “in full compliance with all applicable tax law.”

“The financial arrangements between ACLJ, [Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism] and all related entities have been reviewed by outside independent compensation experts and have been determined to be reasonable,” he said.

Jay Sekulow, a member of President Trump’s legal team, repeatedly says that Trump isn’t under investigation by the special counsel. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Over two decades, Sekulow and his charities have faced criticism from watchdog groups. The charities have not responded to annual requests by the Better Business Bureau and CharityWatch to voluntarily release financial data and to clear up inquiries that members of the public have sent to the watchdog groups.

The two charities are not accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a financial standard-bearer for over 2,000 Christian charities nationwide.

Tax and nonprofit experts who reviewed recent disclosures by the charities' at the request of The Post raised concerns about the family members' salaries and said the charities do not meet the highest standards for transparency and accountability.

The composition of the board of Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism — four members of the same family, all paid — violates BBB standards calling for at least five independent board members and no more than one who receives a financial benefit from the charity, said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance.

Also, they said, it is highly unusual for a group's chief counsel to receive money in the many ways Sekulow and his firms do.

"It's more like a family business than a public charity," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which runs CharityWatch. "You would have to have a lot of trust in this family in order to want to give them your money."

The Post left voice-mail messages for the Sekulows compensated by the two charities: Jay Sekulow; his wife, Pam; sons Logan and Jared Sekulow; as well as his brother Gary Sekulow and Gary’s son Adam. None returned calls. A person who answered the door Monday morning at the ACLJ’s Washington office, in a stately townhouse behind the Supreme Court, declined to comment.

An ACLJ spokesman directed questions about how Sekulow would be compensated for his work defending Trump to the president’s legal team and then did not respond to subsequent messages. A spokesman for Trump’s legal team did not return emails or phone calls.

Feeling like ‘Rocky’

A Supreme Court case in 1987 launched Sekulow, a former IRS attorney struggling through bankruptcy, on the path that made him a folk hero of the Christian right, a person who could be entrusted with a steady stream of charitable donations.

As general counsel for the nonprofit Jews for Jesus, Sekulow — who himself had been born into a Jewish home and converted to Christianity — argued before the nation’s high court that the group should be allowed to pass out leaflets at Los Angeles International Airport. When the court struck down the airport’s ban on First Amendment activity, he basked in the success.

"I felt like 'Rocky' after the fight," he wrote on his personal website.

Sekulow soon had other Supreme Court cases. He created Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism and began attracting donations to keep up his work. He gained the admiration of Robertson and, soon, an invitation to join the ACLJ as its chief counsel.

The perch gave Sekulow an opportunity to argue 12 cases before the Supreme Court, but it was his forays into presidential politics, notably during the George W. Bush presidency, that appeared to elevate Sekulow and Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism into a fundraising juggernaut.

As Sekulow’s exposure on television increased, its annual fundraising jumped from $14 million to $24 million over a period of about two years.

Then, during the term of President Barack Obama, Sekulow’s role as a legal pundit on Fox News further amplified his reach. As Sekulow questioned whether Obama’s IRS had unfairly targeted conservative nonprofit and tea party groups, revenue for his family-controlled charity jumped another $10 million, eclipsing that of the ACLJ.

At the same time, the work of the ACLJ increasingly moved in step with causes of the political right.

The group joined legal challenges to Affordable Care Act mandates and Obama’s executive order on immigration. It defended an antiabortion activist who was sued in California over undercover videos at a Planned Parenthood clinic. It also argued that the corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, should be overturned.

Gregory M. Lipper, a partner in private practice and former senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he saw the change in cases he fought against the ACLJ.

“We litigated against a number of religious organizations, and they all, generally, have similar or slightly different angles. But the ACLJ seemed to become much more like a movement right-wing organization,” Lipper said. “They were very noisy on Islamic terrorism . . . and they started to sound more like Fox News than focusing specifically on free speech or religious liberty issues.”

On May 9, when Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, Sekulow was one of the president’s first and most vocal supporters, both in television appearances and on social media.

Sekulow tweeted that Trump had made "the right decision" — and a similar assessment later came from the ACLJ's Twitter account. "There is NO evidence of collusion between Pres #Trump and #Russia. Trump says it's 'a total hoax' " read a tweet from the nonprofit.

On June 9, a day after Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sekulow announced to his radio listeners that he had accepted a position on Trump's personal legal team, calling it his patriotic duty to defend against "an attack on the presidency."

Borochoff, of CharityWatch, said Sekulow’s proximity to Trump could boost fundraising.

“He has far more attention than he normally would have to raise money — so there is the question of profiting from his relation to the president,” Borochoff said. “Are people listening to his radio program because he’s the president’s adviser? Then they get hit on to donate.”

‘Do people even know?’

Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism has no public website and only a dozen employees, at least half of them Sekulows. Yet it commands a budget of more than $53 million, according to its most recent tax filings — an amount that rivals annual fundraising for PETA or the Anti-Defamation League.

Weiner, of the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance, said the arrangement between Sekulow’s family-run charity and the ACLJ makes it unlikely that donors know where the money is going. “Do people even know who is actually soliciting them?” he said.

At the same time as he is chief counsel of the ACLJ, Jay Sekulow is a director of Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism; the other directors are his sons, Logan and Jordan, and his wife, Pam.

Since 2011, the family-run charity has paid Sekulow and his family members a combined $4.2 million in salary and other compensation. That includes Sekulow’s two sons, his wife, his brother and his nephew. A New York Times wedding announcement for Jordan Sekulow in 2011 indicated that his future wife also worked at the nonprofit.

Jay Sekulow’s brother, Gary Sekulow, is the head of finance for both charities. Tax filings indicate that he works 40 hours a week at the family-run charity and another 40 hours at the ACLJ, making $631,000 and $272,000, respectively, in 2015.

Additionally, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism has paid $3.1 million since 2011 to PFMS, a company owned by Gary’s wife, Kim Sekulow, for “TV and radio agency fees,” IRS filings show. The firm’s website describes it as full-service agency specializing in Christian radio and television. The six clients listed on its website are: “Jay Sekulow Live!,” “Jay Sekulow Weekend,” “ACLJ Weekly,” “Law and Justice Feature,” “The Jordan Sekulow Show,” and “The Messianic Hour,” featuring Rabbi Scott Sekulow, Jay Sekulow’s brother.

“All this interfamily relationship raises potential issues as to whether some or all of them are being overpaid,” said David Nelson, a specialist on nonprofits and a former tax partner at the Ernst & Young accounting firm. He noted, however, that it is difficult to prove that compensation is unreasonable unless it is far outside norms.

Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism has also spent $2.5 million on chartered vehicles, business-class flights and other travel for the Sekulows and its handful of employees, tax documents show.

From 2011 to 2016, the ACLJ did not pay Sekulow as a staff member. But its largest outside expense was $21 million sent to the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group, the for-profit legal firm in which Sekulow has a 50 percent stake, according to tax filings.

It is not clear from public documents why the ACLJ, which has attorneys on staff, outsources work to a firm half-owned by the ACLJ chief counsel. The charity gets “various legal and legal related TV, radio, and certain publication services” from the law firm, an independent auditor wrote in one filing.

The Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group does not show up in a search of a national database that includes details about attorneys and law firms involved in local, state and federal cases. A Labor Department document offers some of the few public details about the firm: It shares a phone with the ACLJ, and its pension plan has four participants.

When Sekulow himself files an appearance in a court case, it is often as a representative of the ACLJ.

The ACLJ has worked on more than two dozen cases over the past two years, court records show, in many instances filing friend-of-the-court briefs supporting freedom of religious expression or conservative causes.

Robertson has long touted the ACLJ as a rampart protecting Christians against the secularization in civic life.

“A prayer was taken out, then Bible reading was taken out, then the Ten Commandments were taken out,” Robertson said in a 1998 speech, describing court rulings that sought to strip religious freedoms. “We have received last year at the American Center for Law and Justice 102,000 complaints of religious persecution in the United States of America. And we have about 1,000 active cases right now going on.”

Like Jay Sekulow, Robertson does not claim any compensation as the ACLJ’s president.

Since 2013, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism has forwarded $500,000 each year to a small charity called the Law and Justice Institute that has no employees. The small charity relies almost exclusively on the Sekulow family-run charity for its revenue, tax filings show. Sekulow is president of the Law and Justice Institute. The Law and Justice Institute, in turn, has paid $500,000 each year to Advocacy Services. Robertson is president of that firm, according to Virginia state records. Robertson's spokesman did not address written questions about the payments from The Post.

‘I could bill $750 an hour’

In 2005, the Legal Times first traced unusual spending by Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism and the ACLJ, including leasing a private jet Sekulow acknowledged using for golfing trips and forgiving loan payments for real estate purchased by the Sekulows. Around that time, the ACLJ had begun paying Sekulow's law firm about $700,000 a year, and Sekulow acknowledged to the Legal Times that his salary from that arrangement was "above $600,000" a year.

The publication said Sekulow shrugged off criticism and made no apologies. “I wouldn’t pretend to tell you we don’t pay our lawyers well,” including himself, the Times quoted Sekulow as saying. “As a private lawyer, I could bill $750 an hour, but I don’t.”

The Guardian reported on the fundraising efforts and spending of Sekulow’s charities earlier Tuesday.

The Post found that in addition to Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism surpassing the more well-known ACLJ for fundraising, recent spending by the nonprofits has expanded across the globe. The ACLJ has given more than $9 million to three independent organizations that Sekulow launched overseas.

It is not clear from publicly available documents if Sekulow draws a salary from these organizations. He is the chief counsel of each, records show.

Researcher Alice Crites and staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.