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Lawmakers call for IRS scrutiny of Trump-backed nonprofit that aids Jan. 6 rioters

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in September 2022. At the rally, Trump invited the president and founder of the nonprofit Patriot Freedom Project to give a speech. The group's close ties to Trump have prompted scrutiny from lawmakers.
Ed Jones
AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in September 2022. At the rally, Trump invited the president and founder of the nonprofit Patriot Freedom Project to give a speech. The group's close ties to Trump have prompted scrutiny from lawmakers.

Congressional Democrats are raising alarms about a nonprofit group that provides financial support for defendants charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, questioning whether the organization's apparent support for Donald Trump's presidential campaign may violate federal tax law.

The group, known as the Patriot Freedom Project, launched in response to the arrest of a Jan. 6 rioter known for promoting extreme racist, antisemitic and pro-Nazi views. The group's leaders describe Jan. 6 defendants as "political prisoners" and have developed a close relationship with Trump and his 2024 presidential campaign. The former president has embraceddefendants charged in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, calling them "hostages" and promising to issue pardons to defendants if he wins the 2024 presidential election.

That close relationship has now drawn scrutiny from members of Congress.

Because the Patriot Freedom Project is organized as a nonprofit charitable organization under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, it is "absolutely prohibited" by federal law from "directly or indirectly" taking part in partisan political campaigns or endorsing or opposing candidates.

As NPR previously reported, the founder and president of the Patriot Freedom Project, Cynthia Hughes, encouraged people to vote for Trump at one of the group's events held at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in August 2023.

"When you go to the ballot box, don't worry about what you hear in the media. Worry about what's right for this country. And the only thing that's right for this country is this gem," said Hughes as she pointed to Trump, who was standing beside her, according to video of the event posted online.

NPR found other instances in which the group expressed support for Trump's reelection, took part in partisan campaign events and encouraged people to vote against political candidates.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey oversees the Internal Revenue Service as the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight. In response to NPR's reporting, Pascrell called on the agency to open an investigation into the Patriot Freedom Project

"If this purported nonprofit organization is using its pulpit to promote Donald Trump, the group is not just supporting the same authoritarianism espoused by an insurrectionist – it is also breaking federal tax law and must be held accountable," said Pascrell in a statement to NPR. "The IRS should investigate this case immediately and crack down on those potentially abusing our tax code."

Pascrell's Republican counterpart on the Subcommittee on Oversight, Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., raised concerns about what he views as lax IRS enforcement of nonprofits involved in political activity.

"There are 501(c)(3) organizations that openly flout the law and solicit tax-deductible donations to fund political activities," Whitehouse told NPR in a statement. "These political organizations masquerade as charities and brazenly ignore the law, because they don't think the IRS will enforce it. Too often, they're right. It's long past time that the IRS crack down on these abuses."

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said in an interview that NPR's reporting had raised concerns for him about the Patriot Freedom Project's political activity.

"I'm certainly alarmed to learn that a 501(c)(3) organization is sending out direct political advocacy — meaning messages telling people to vote for this candidate or vote against that candidate," said Raskin, who served on the Jan. 6 select committee in Congress. "That clearly cuts against the letter of the law. The resources and the prestige of the organization cannot be used for electoral purposes in any way."

The Patriot Freedom Project did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

An IRS official declined to comment. Because the group is based in New Jersey, it is also regulated by that state's authorities. A spokesperson for the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs told NPR, "We cannot comment on hypothetical violations of the law," but noted that violations of federal law could also lead to repercussions at the state level.

Cynthia Hughes, seen here wearing a "Due Process Denied" shirt, has become a regular on Steve Bannon's show, where she has described the Jan. 6 defendants as "political prisoners."
/ War Room/Screenshot by NPR
War Room/Screenshot by NPR
Patriot Freedom Project President Cynthia Hughes, seen here wearing a "Due Process Denied" shirt, has become a regular on former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon's show, where she has described the Jan. 6 defendants as "political prisoners."

What does the law say?

Nonprofit charitable organizations that are recognized by the IRS under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code are exempt from certain federal, state and local taxes. The government allows donors to 501(c)(3) nonprofits to deduct their charitable contributions at tax time, which helps incentivize donations. The Patriot Freedom Project touts that perk on its website.

But those benefits come with restrictions.

As the IRS puts it on the agency's website, "all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

That means federal law prohibits 501(c)(3) groups from endorsing or opposing political candidates and from making or distributing statements for or against political candidates.

"If an organization posts something on its website that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, it is prohibited political campaign activity," according to a "Frequently Asked Questions" webpage on the IRS' website.

The IRS also instructs nonprofits to tread carefully if they hold events with a political candidate. If the organization invites a candidate to speak, then it must take steps to ensure that it provides "an equal opportunity to participate to all political candidates seeking the same office," the IRS states, and the organization must ensure that it "does not indicate any support for or opposition to any candidate (including candidate introductions and in communications concerning any candidate's attendance)."

The Patriot Freedom Project acknowledged these legal requirements when it applied for tax-exempt status, and it declared in its IRS paperwork that it would not "support or oppose candidates in political campaigns in any way."

What has the Patriot Freedom Project done?

NPR found several speeches, events and social media posts in which the Patriot Freedom Project and its leadership took actions that raise questions about whether the group may have violated the ban on political campaign activity by 501(c)(3) nonprofits.

Take, for example, the Patriot Freedom Project's homepage, which prominently features a video of Trump at a campaign rally in September 2022.

Hughes, the Patriot Freedom Project's president and founder, spoke at that rally, which was held in support of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, both of Pennsylvania. (Both Oz and Mastriano subsequently lost in the 2022 elections.) At the event, Hughes identified herself specifically as the leader of the Patriot Freedom Project and encouraged people to support the group.

Hughes went on to hold multiple Patriot Freedom Project events either featuring Trump or where speakers promoted Trump's political campaign:

  • In December 2022, the Patriot Freedom Project held an "open house" event where a senior adviser to Trump's Save America political action committee as well as Trump himself spoke. That same month, Trump's PAC donated $10,000 to the Patriot Freedom Project.
  • In June 2023, the Patriot Freedom Project held an event at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster. Video of the event shows that Trump gave a speech in which he said, "We're gonna win an election in 2024," as Hughes and Patriot Freedom Project board member Ed Martin applauded. Another speaker at the event said, "We have got to reelect President Trump into the White House."
  • Later that summer, in August 2023, the Patriot Freedom Project held another event at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster where Hughes encouraged people to vote for Trump and the former president also spoke.
  • At a Patriot Freedom Project event to mark the third anniversary of the attack, on Jan. 6, 2024, the group featured a speech from a pro-Trump attorney who said, "We need to keep the momentum strong behind President Trump" in the 2024 election. Photosand videoof the event show a large table featuring a "TRUMP 2024" flag, alongside flags depicting Trump as Superman and Captain America.

On the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), the group's official account also veered into promoting and attacking political candidates:

  • The group's official account posted the hashtag "#Trump2024" threetimes.
  • One post stated, "we need to ... take down" multiple "RINOS" (an acronym for "Republicans in name only") in Congress running for reelection.
  • The account attacked the Democratic governor of New York and added, "Vote these radicals out!"
  • The group reposted messagesfrom the official campaign account for a convicted Jan. 6 defendant now running for Congress.

If the IRS finds that a nonprofit group has violated the legal ban on intervening in political campaigns, the agency can revoke its tax-exempt status and impose tax penalties.

According to financial documents posted on its website, the Patriot Freedom Project has raised more than $2 million since its founding.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.