Jay Talking

President Trump Taps A Prominent Religious Right Attorney To Be His Latest Legal Eagle

Religious Right attorney Jay Sekulow was not having a good day.

Defending President Donald J. Trump on “Fox News Sunday” June 18, Sekulow was supposed to stress the point that Trump was not being investigated by any federal law-enforcement agencies. 

Sekulow ended up saying the opposite – twice.

“Sir, you just said two times that he’s being investigated,” host Chris Wallace said to a sputtering Sekulow during a piece of the segment. Video footage soon went viral on social media.

A few weeks later, Sekulow stumbled again on ABC’s “This Week” when he asserted that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian operatives couldn’t have been so bad because the Secret Service did nothing to stop it. The comment led the Secret Service to issue a statement pointing out that it wasn’t protecting Trump Jr. at the time, and thus had no opportunity to screen the people he met with. 

These clumsy missteps provided plenty of fodder for political pundits, but only a few asked the most relevant question: What was Sekulow doing on those shows in the first place? 

The short answer is that Sekulow was invited to be on because Trump has added him to his team of private attorneys. But that leads to another question: Why Sekulow?

Sekulow, who made his name in Religious Right legal circles by running TV preacher Pat Robertson’s legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), doesn’t seem to have the experience Trump needs right now. An aggressive litigator and media figure, Sekulow has argued several church-state cases, including some before the Supreme Court. He does not, however, have a background of working on the type of constitutional issues Trump faces.

Sekulow’s elevation to Trump’s legal defense team dramatically boosted his public profile – but that has turned out to be not necessarily a good thing for the Religious Right attorney. Reporters began digging into Sekulow’s background and found plenty of dirt.

Reporters started by using a tried-and-true investigative technique: following the money. In Sekulow’s case, there’s lots of it, and he’s been sharing the wealth with his family.

The ACLJ’s budget is nearly $20 million, but an allied group Sekulow runs, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE), has a staggering $53 million in revenue – although it’s unclear what exactly CASE does.

The relationship between the two organizations is complicated. The ACLJ is based in Virginia Beach, the headquarters of Robertson’s TV empire, and has an office in Washington, D.C. CASE is located in Tucker, Ga. On publicly available financial documents, CASE reports that it’s just another name for the ACLJ. Yet the groups maintain separate budgets and separate boards. (The boards of both groups consist mostly of Sekulow family members.)

Years ago, Sekulow was pretty active in court. Under CASE’s banner, he successfully argued a 1990 case before the Supreme Court called Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens. Ruling 8-1, the court upheld the Equal Access Act, federal legislation that allows students at public secondary schools to form religious clubs under certain conditions.

When he took over the ACLJ in 1992, Sekulow pursued other cases dealing with the role of religion in public education and the display of sectarian symbols on government property. The group opposed the expansion of LGBTQ rights, sought to erode the right to abortion and took on other common Religious Right projects.

But as the years went by, the ACLJ became less prominent and less active in court. The rise of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a large Religious Right legal group originally founded by a coalition of well-heeled radio and TV preachers, threatened to eclipse outfits like the ACLJ. Indeed, the most recent cases dealing with church-state issues, including Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer and a spate of cases citing “religious freedom” as a defense for business owners who don’t want to serve gay people, have been litigated by ADF attorneys. 

So what has the ACLJ been doing? A look at the group’s website shows very little actual legal activity these days. A list of press releases contains just a few cases, some of which are years old. (CASE does not maintain its own website.)

In fact, one of the ACLJ’s most high-profile cases of note is seven years old – and in it, Sekulow took a stand actively opposing the religious liberty he claims his group protects.

Sekulow has always claimed to be an advocate of religious liberty, but in 2010 he worked to undermine that principle by filing a lawsuit to stop a religious group from opening a house of worship.

The controversy arose after an Islamic group in New York City announced plans to build an Islamic center in lower Manhattan. Buying property and opening a house of worship would seem to be a fundamental expression of religious liberty, but Sekulow apparently felt differently. Fanning the flames of Islamophobia, the ACLJ and other groups dubbed the facility the “Ground Zero Mosque” – even though it was two blocks from the 9/11 site and wasn’t a mosque.

The ACLJ eventually filed suit on behalf of a local man who claimed that a building that would have to be razed to house the center was historic. The structure did date to the 1850s, but it was hardly iconic – it had been damaged during the terrorist attack and was sitting empty. Prior to that, it had been home to a Burlington Coat Factory store.

A New York court dismissed Sekulow’s lawsuit, but plans for the Islamic center fell through after its backers were unable to raise enough money. Current plans are to convert the building into luxury condominiums, although there’s still talk about the inclusion of an Islamic museum on the site.

A visit to the ACLJ’s website these days is akin to checking in with Fox News, Breitbart or other far-right outlets that spin the news for ultra-conservative tastes. You’ll find plenty of articles defending Trump and blasting his critics, but there’s precious little info about lawsuits.

So what are the ACLJ and CASE doing with all that money? At least some of it is being siphoned off to members of Sekulow’s family.

Sekulow’s tendency to enrich himself and his family through nonprofit groups has been known for some time. In 2005, Legal Times reporter Tony Mauro penned an in-depth exposé examining how Sekulow has used the nonprofits to funnel money to himself and members of his family. Mauro quoted some anonymous Sekulow critics from the evangelical right, but that apparently didn’t stop the flow of money.

Sekulow’s rise as a Trump attorney led some others in the media to take another look at the finances of his groups. The British newspaper The Guardian ran a long story in late June about Sekulow’s business dealings and his use of nonprofit organizations to enrich himself and members of his family. The Washington Post shortly after ran a similar story examining his groups’ finances. 

What these newspapers found is that the Sekulow family empire has only grown since Mauro’s original reporting.

The Guardian report outlined several disturbing facts:

  • A law firm co-owned by Sekulow called the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group has received more than $25 million from the ACLJ and CASE for legal services.
     
  • Another Sekulow company, Regency Productions, has made more than $11 million. The group’s primary function is producing Sekulow’s radio show.
     
  • CASE runs an extremely aggressive telephone-based fundraising operation. Solicitors are given scripts that coach them on how to respond when people say they are too poor to donate.
     
  • Sekulow’s wife, Pam, has been paid more than $1 million by CASE for serving as the group’s secretary and treasurer. His brother Gary since 2000 has received more than $9 million for serving as chief operating officer of the ACLJ and CASE. Gary Sekulow’s wife has received more than $6 million over the past 17 years for “media production services.”
     
  • Jay Sekulow’s two sons and Gary Sekulow’s son and daughter are also on board the gravy train. The four of them have received nearly $2 million in compensation for various work done since 2000.
     
  • CASE has loaned Sekulow and his wife money to buy properties. The CASE board of directors, which is controlled by members of the Sekulow family, later voted to forgive most of the loans.

The Post story went into more detail, noting that Sekulow’s nonprofits “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….”

Asked to comment on this level of compensation and the nature of these deals, Arthur Rieman, a California attorney specializing in nonprofits, told The Guardian, “I can’t imagine this situation being acceptable. That kind of money is practically unheard of in the nonprofit world, and these kinds of transactions I could never justify.”

Nonprofit groups, which enjoy the benefit of tax-exemption, are supposed to perform a public good. Generally speaking, employees of nonprofits receive less compensation than those who work in the corporate sector. No one is supposed to get rich running a nonprofit, and there are laws against what’s called “inurement,” that is, using a nonprofit to enrich private parties.

Several tax experts consulted by The Guardian and The Post expressed reservations about the manner in which Sekulow has structured and runs these nonprofits. 

“It’s more like a family business than a public charity,” Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, told The Post.

The Internal Revenue Service, which is charged with overseeing nonprofits and ensuring that tax-exempt groups don’t violate the law, hasn’t commented publicly on the allegations against ACLJ and CASE. But after The Post and Guardian stories ran, the attorneys general of New York and North Carolina announced that they would look into the groups.

“The reports I’ve read are troubling. My office is looking into this matter,” Josh Stein, the attorney general of North Carolina, said in a statement. The New York Attorney General’s office added, “We’re reviewing their filings.”

It’s impossible to know how these investigations will play out, but right now it looks as though there may be even more days ahead for Sekulow that aren’t so good.