— Bryant “Corky” Messner, GOP candidate running for Senate in New Hampshire, during a Merrimack County (N.H.) Republican Committee Happy Hour, May 27, 2020
Messner, who has been endorsed by President Trump, is seeking the Republican nomination for the Senate race in New Hampshire. He built a law firm in Denver and was the general counsel for Chipotle Mexican Grill, amassing a net worth of between $14 million and $53 million, according to his financial disclosure report.
As part of his campaign, he has touted an organization, the Messner Foundation, which he says selects low-income students every year to receive college scholarships. “You know, it’s mostly my personal money,” he told Republicans watching a “Beer Caucus” Zoom call in May with his rival, retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. “You know, we do some things in the law firm around the country to raise money for the foundation. But ultimately we don’t raise that much so it’s essentially my money that goes into it to help these kids.” He said the foundation had been started “maybe 10 years ago.”
On its website, the Messner Foundation solicits donations and applications from students by claiming it “identifies deserving high school students who have demonstrated leadership traits and gives those students the resources and connections they need to flourish. The goal of the Messner Foundation is to cultivate the next generation of business and community leaders.”
But documents filed with the IRS, for the years 2009 to 2018, show a different story.
The Messner Foundation was created to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Messner’s law firm, Messner Reeves LLP, according to an interview Messner gave to the Denver Business Journal in 2010. “The first scholarship winner will begin college in fall 2011,” the article said. “The foundation will combine the scholarships with mentoring and guidance programs.” Messner is quoted as saying that he “wanted to start a vehicle to help young people who are similarly situated as I was.”
In marketing the scholarships, the Messner Foundation is closely associated with Messner’s law firm. A Messner partner hawks the scholarships on television. The Foundation has raised money by raffling off expensive vehicles, most recently a nearly $59,000 Range Rover in 2019.
Indeed, the foundation was originally funded by a $100,000 contribution by Messner Reeves, according to the 2009 tax form filed by the foundation. No other substantial contributor is listed, though Corky Messner is listed as the president of the foundation every year.
Then, oddly, the $100,000 just sat there — year after year. A few hundred dollars in interest was earned. But no funds were distributed, despite the announcement that scholarships would start in 2011.
Philip Hackney, an associate law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who examined the tax filings for The Fact Checker, said the tax law for private foundations requires that 5 percent of the assets be distributed every year. Otherwise, the foundation must pay a fine equal to 30 percent of the amount not distributed. “I’m troubled by the fact that they did nothing for the first four or five years,” he said. “That doesn’t pass muster.”
“The Messner Foundation has always been viewed by the IRS as being in good standing and we have adhered to the advice of our accountant in that regard,” said a campaign statement.
The 2013 tax form listed the assets as $100,374. “It’s a particularly small foundation,” Hackney noted.
Finally, in 2014, a disbursement was made. But it was not for a scholarship for a low-income student. Tax records show the foundation made a $50,000 contribution to the Colorado Academy, one of the state’s elite private schools, for “construction of athletic facilities.” (The campaign says the money funded a baseball field.)
The donation to Colorado Academy — which Messner’s sons attended from kindergarten through 12th grade — cut the foundation’s assets in half.
That contribution was among $700,000 in donations that Colorado Academy received that year. The school in 2014 had an endowment of $22 million, according to its tax filings, and on its website boasts that its “verdant 94-acre campus is delightful, whatever the season.”
The Messner campaign says the scholarship program had not started yet. “It was a discretionary donation that predated the creation of the Foundation’s scholarship program,” a campaign statement said. “Corky believed the gift [to Colorado Academy] was in keeping with the Foundation’s stated mission to cultivate the next generation of business and community leaders, and appropriate for a college-preparatory school that attracts gifted scholar-athletes.”
But the 2014 website of the Messner Foundation, showing photos of Black and Hispanic students, claimed: “The Messner Foundation identifies underprivileged high school students. … The Messner Foundation not only helps its Scholars financially, but provides life experiences as well.”
Starting in 2015, the Messner Foundation began to raise money by holding raffles of luxury cars. In an announcement pegged to the firm’s 20th anniversary, the law firm claimed it would “raise significant funds that will have a lasting and measurable impact on the lives of students selected as Messner Scholars.”
But it was an expensive proposition. The foundation in 2015 earned almost $210,000 in raffle ticket sales but had $113,000 in expenses, including $84,000 for the cost of the car, a Tesla. It ended the year with $146,000 in assets — but still had offered no scholarships.
The campaign, saying “it took several years to come up with a sustainable funding source and a process fair to applicants,” supplied to The Fact Checker a letter to the IRS in 2016 seeking approval for the scholarship program and a letter showing IRS approval in 2017.
The Messner Foundation in 2016 extended its first scholarship: about $5,500 to Majarlika Diane Villaruel-Mariano, a local high school student who attended the University of Denver. That same year, the foundation’s assets were boosted by another car raffle, this time for a $63,000 Jeep.
In 2017, Villaruel-Mariano was given about $17,500 by the foundation.
In 2018, the foundation gave Villaruel-Mariano almost $25,000. All told, she received about $48,000 over those three years. No car raffles were held by the foundation in 2017 or 2018, so with the last available tax filing, the foundation’s assets stood at about $148,000.
In other words, over the first 10 years, the foundation made grants to only one student.
Villaruel-Mariano would not discuss the scholarship or respond to emailed questions. “You should talk to them about that,” she said in a brief telephone conversation. The Messner campaign later provided a quote from Villaruel-Mariano: “Thanks to the support from the Messner Foundation, I will be the first in my family to graduate with a college degree. … I am grateful to Mr. Messner for his support and guidance.”
Colorado high schools listed the Messner Foundation as a possible source of scholarships, so presumably the law firm received applications from other students.
The Denver Scholarship Foundation, which promotes 500 different scholarships, at one time listed Messner as a potential source of funds. “One student will be selected from the pool of applicants and will have access to funding for up to four years for undergraduate studies,” the notice said. “Awards for subsequent years will be awarded based on reapplication.”
But now the organization no longer lists Messner. “We removed it in 2018 because we couldn’t verify that it was still an active scholarship,” said Latia C. Henderson, director of marketing at the Denver Scholarship Foundation. “We aim to only include verified scholarships in our directory so it’s been removed for now.”
By coincidence or not, the revival of the car raffles in 2019 came just as Messner was considering jumping into the Senate race. “He has spent a great deal of time and his own money working with an army of consultants as he considers his future,” said a May 28, 2019, email seeking financial support for the Messner NH Exploratory Committee from one of his law firm partners, Michelle Harden. The day after sending that email, Harden appeared in a television interview with Villaruel-Mariano to tout the 2019 car raffle.
The Messner campaign said Villaruel-Mariano has received additional funding from the foundation, not yet shown in public tax filings, so her total scholarship is about $78,000. “Arnold Acosta is the latest recipient, who has received $4,886 from 2019-20 and the Foundation intends to provide further support as his studies continue, as we have done for the first recipient,” a campaign statement said. “A third student was selected, but chose not to accept the scholarship.” (The campaign did not supply the tax forms that would verify these statements.)
Besides the initial $100,000 from the law firm, the only other contributions listed in tax filings are from raffle sales that also promote the law firm in the Denver area. But administration expenses (mainly the cost of cars that are raffled) are a significant percentage of revenue. Over its lifetime, it cost the Messner Foundation more than $45 to raise $100, according to the tax records. And just 32 percent of expenses was spent on charitable programs.
“The car raffles have not generated the hoped-for revenue, given the expense of car purchases, covering the winners’ tax liability, and raffle promotion,” the campaign statement said.
The law firm and Harden did not respond to requests for comment.
“Corky believes in supporting and mentoring young people from diverse backgrounds pursuing various careers. That’s why the Messner Foundation was established in 2009 with a generous $100,000 donation from Messner-Reeves, LLC, of which Corky Messner is Founding Partner and CEO,” Michael Biundo, senior adviser for Messner for Senate Campaign, said in an emailed statement. “While the Foundation’s scholarship program that started in 2016 is fairly new, it has already had a positive impact on the lives of young people and has fulfilled its stated purpose, to follow the student through their education life cycle.”
The Pinocchio Test
Messner claims that the foundation selects worthy students for scholarships every year, that the goal of the foundation is to help low-income students and that the foundation was mostly funded by his own money.
But in the first 10 years of the foundation’s existence, only one student received a scholarship from Messner’s foundation — and even more money was given to an elite private school that Messner’s sons were attending at the time. The foundation was essentially dormant after being founded, despite Messner’s claim nine years ago that scholarships would start. The law firm is listed as the source of the original $100,000, while tax forms show the only other funds have been raised with car raffles that, incidentally, also promote the law firm. There are no records of personal contributions from Messner, though, to be sure, he is the founding partner of the law firm.
The campaign now says that a second student has begun to receive scholarship funds and that the scholarship program only started in 2016. That may be the case. But for years Messner and the foundation have suggested that many students had been the recipients of funds.
Messner earns Four Pinocchios.
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