— President Trump, at a news conference, Aug. 31
Until the killing of George Floyd in police custody, the Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF) was a relatively small vehicle for assisting people who needed cash for bail.
MFF’s 2018 tax filing shows it raised only about $100,000 that year. Just weeks after Floyd’s death, it raised an astonishing $35 million, in part because of tweets such as the one by Harris, who is now the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. That influx has put a strain on an organization that at the time had only one full-time staff member.
For the purposes of this fact-check, we are going to mostly focus on Cotton’s claim that “violent rioters” were bailed out in order “to do more damage.” But we will also address Trump’s comment.
MFF is among the many organizations that seek to mitigate what some see as inequities in the nation’s cash-bail system. People who cannot afford to pay the full amount in cash for bail generally must either wait in jail until their trial or borrow money, forfeiting 10 percent of the loan up front.
Some states have moved to eliminate cash bail. For instance, New Jersey, under former governor Chris Christie (R), replaced it with a point-based system, overseen by judges, that assesses risk based on the nature of the charges, the defendant’s prior record and the risk to the public. So far, the state says, people released under the new system appear no more likely to commit a crime while waiting for their trials than people previously released under the cash bail system.
Former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, also has proposed eliminating cash bail. Critics of the current bail system say it mainly harms people of color, who are poorer and less able to afford bail, forcing them to lose jobs and income as they await trial. MFF says 60 percent of the people incarcerated in Minnesota are being held in pretrial detention — and that Black people make up 7 percent of the state population but 31 percent of the prison and jail population.
If a defendant shows up for court hearings, the full value of the cash bail is returned. So MFF puts up the cash, and the defendant signs a document saying the money should be given to MFF at the end of the process.
Trump’s comment about Biden staff members refers to a Reuters report that at least 13 Biden staff members posted on Twitter on May 26 and 27 that they had contributed to MFF. (There are more than 2,000 people who are part of Biden’s campaign staff.) A Biden campaign official noted that the staff members who donated did so on their own initiative and it wasn’t organized by the campaign.
Then, on June 1, Harris (who was not yet chosen as Biden’s running mate) tweeted a link to an MFF donation page on ActBlue:
That’s the tweet that Cotton highlighted, adding: “Don’t believe her when she says she ‘condemns the violence’ — look at her record, not her words.”
But it turns out that few people involved in the protests needed MFF’s help to get out of jail.
According to an accounting by the American Bail Coalition, verified by The Fact Checker with a review of Hennepin County jail records, all but three of the 170 people arrested during the protests between May 26 and June 2 were released from jail within a week. Of the 167 released, only 10 had to put up a monetary bond to be released; in most cases, the amounts were nominal, such as $78 or $100. In fact, 92 percent of those arrested had to pay no bail — and 29 percent of those arrested did not face charges. (The American Bail Coalition is a trade group of insurance companies who profit from underwriting bail bonds.)
MFF “definitely got a windfall,” said Jeffrey J. Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition. “The purpose for what they got the money was not there.”
Still, there are some instances of MFF assisting people accused of serious crimes.
One defendant, Jaleel Stallings, was charged with attempted murder after allegedly shooting at police during protests on May 30, county records show. MFF paid $75,000 in cash to get Stallings out of jail, according to MFF interim director Greg Lewin. He said Stallings was among a dozen people MFF helped with direct bail actions after the protests.
The probable charge statement against Stallings says officers wore their uniforms, as well as SWAT vests and helmets, as they fired 40 mm plastic projectiles to disperse crowds. As police officers patrolled in an unmarked white van, a group of people ran away, but Stallings allegedly approached the vehicle and appeared to fire three or four rounds from a AK-47-style mini Draco pistol after an officer fired a plastic projectile in his direction. Stallings was quickly subdued and arrested.
MFF also paid $750 toward a bond for Chylen Evans, who was charged with looting a liquor store, clothing store and mobile store.
“MFF believes that every individual who has been arrested by the police is innocent until proven guilty, and if a judge deems them eligible for bail, they should not have to wait in jail simply because they don’t have the same income or resources as others with more privilege,” Lewin told The Fact Checker. He said that MFF spent $250,000 in early June on bail actions, including the $75,000 for Stallings, but that figure also includes non-protest cases.
Eric Rice, Stallings’s attorney, declined to comment on Stallings’s possible defense.
On Aug. 10, Minneapolis television station KMSP aired a report documenting how, after receiving the torrent of donations, MFF had bailed out a number of people charged with violent crimes, including posting $100,000 for a woman accused of killing a friend and $350,000 for a twice-convicted rapist charged with kidnapping, assault and sexual assault in two separate cases.
The court records do not show who provided the bail, but KMSP was able to determine MFF’s involvement because defendants file a document saying the bail money should be given to MFF. Tom Lyden, a KMSP investigative reporter, graciously provided a photo of one of those documents and other information gathered for his report.
Before the influx of cash, MFF’s average bail was $342, according to numbers Lewin provided KMSP. Now the average bail is $13,195.
After Lyden’s report aired, Lionel Timms, a man whom MFF bailed out on an assault charge in July, was charged with committing third-degree assault on Aug. 14, leaving the victim with a traumatic brain injury and a fractured skull.
MFF issued a statement that it was “deeply saddened and troubled” by the arrest and that not enough support was given to Timms “to safely come back to the community,” including promised housing.
“We do not make determinations of bail support based on the crimes that individuals are alleged to have committed,” Lewin said. “We are, however, taking steps to strengthen our internal procedures for ensuring that those we bail out receive support, especially if they are in need of housing or medical treatment. Those processes involve renewing our commitment to listen to the communities directly impacted by our efforts, and ensuring those we bail out have the necessary support to safely return to their families and their community.”
Aaron MacLean, a spokesman for Cotton, said the Timms case backs up the message of Cotton’s tweet. “Anyone who donated/solicited donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund shares responsibility for how the money is used — in this case, to bail out a violent criminal who went on to commit a further act of violence,” he said in an email. “Indeed, no one should be soliciting donations for (or, in the case of Joe Biden's staff, actually donating to) an organization that takes an incredibly reckless approach to public safety.”
The Pinocchio Test
With its limited assets before Floyd’s death, MFF previously could not handle many felony cases. But now it has the funds to do so. Given MFF’s policy that the nature of the crimes is not relevant, more people charged with possibly heinous crimes will be freed on bail in Minnesota if judges deem them eligible for release.
Cotton’s claim that “violent rioters” were released with MFF funds has some basis in fact. But we stumble over Cotton’s additional claim that violent rioters were let out of jail to do more damage. MFF did bail out at least two people charged with attempted murder or burglary during the protests. But there is no evidence they committed additional crimes after being released. His spokesman points to a disturbing case that was unconnected to the protests. But that’s not what Cotton tweeted.
Moreover, it turns out the MFF was only a bit player in the release of people charged during the protests. The vast majority of people — 92 percent — had to pay no bail. So both Cotton and Trump are wrong to suggest that the donations led to the release of many protesters or rioters.
At the same time, people who sent millions of dollars to MFF to aid peaceful protesters may be surprised to learn their moneys were not needed in the first place, even if they support elimination of the cash-bail system.
It is certainly fair to raise questions about how MFF is handling the millions of dollars it has raised and whether greater oversight is needed. In theory, Cotton would have been eligible for one Pinocchio because of the second part of his sentence but we will leave this unrated.
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