November 23, 2016; Washington Post
Steve Bannon, the executive chairman at conservative news site Breitbart News Network (before going on leave in August) and newly appointed senior adviser (some say co-chief of staff) to President-elect Trump, has been receiving compensation from the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a small Florida-based foundation established by Bannon in 2012. Two other GAI employees are also identified as receiving compensation from the foundation while simultaneously employed elsewhere.
The six-figure compensation reported on GAI’s 2012-2014 Form 990 returns raises serious questions of private inurement and excessive compensation. GAI appears to be paying full-time or near full-time compensation to three people with other apparent full-time employment. In addition, GAI receives much of its funding from a single private foundation whose sole officer is also a GAI board member.
Form 990 filings on GuideStar indicate that Bannon received between $81,000 in 2012 and $100,000 a year in 2013 and 2014 for 30 hours a week as the chairman of GAI while simultaneously working full time at Breitbart. It’s unclear how Bannon could work three-quarters time at GAI while simultaneously running Breitbart. In addition, GAI paid more than $200,000 for advertising on Breitbart’s web site from 2012 to 2014.
The Washington Post article expresses concern about the conservative nature of GAI and its donors, as well as its publications, which are critical of elected officials, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Peter Schweizer, GAI’s president, is the author of Clinton Cash, a 2015 book (and movie) tracing the transactions and relationships involving Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, and foreign governments and individuals. The following statement is included in the acknowledgements at the end of Clinton Cash:
The Government Accountability Institute has benefitted from terrific leadership in our little more than three years of existence. This includes our chairman and CEO Stephen K. Bannon, as well as our board of directors….I want to say a special thanks to those who have supported our research over the past couple of years, which has offended both Republicans and Democrats in Washington.
The GAI website’s homepage features post-election media appearances by Schweizer outlining potential business conflicts of interest facing Donald Trump as he prepares to become the next president. No mention is made of Steve Bannon’s roles at Breitbart and GAI. A spokeswoman for GAI says Bannon stepped down in August 2016.
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A statement from GAI’s spokesperson said:
The Government Accountability Institute’s [GAI] track record investigating Republicans is clear and undeniable. Republicans like John Boehner, Spencer Bachus, Roy Blunt, Dennis Hastert, Ron Paul, Jeb Bush, Saxby Chambliss, Ander Crenshaw, Ray LaHood, Richard Lugar, Marco Rubio, Jerry Lewis, Bill Young, Dave Camp, Tom DeLay, and the National Republican Congressional Committee have all been the subjects of serious GAI reports and books.
It’s not clear whether being bipartisan in investigating possible corruption sufficiently addresses the issue advocacy as opposed to political campaign intervention test applied to 501(c)(3) public charities like GAI. It’s also unclear how the IRS (and, ultimately, the federal courts) would assess the level of partisan political activity when reviewing investigative materials that slam a candidate but never explicitly argue against voting for them, or voting in the alternative for their opponent.
In addition to his full-time employment at GAI, Schweizer is also listed on the firm’s website as a principal of Oval Office Writers, a for-profit limited liability company (LLC) that he co-founded with Mark Theissen in 2009.
Another potential conflict involves Wynton Hall, identified by GAI as a full-time (40 hours a week) communications strategist. GAI’s base compensation to Hall was $101,461 in 2012, $145,231 in 2013, and $175,000 in 2014. However, he is also managing editor at Breitbart, with significant editorial demands. When Hall was promoted to managing editor in 2013, Bannon said, “Having a 24/7 editorial team focused on the site, coupled with senior editors generating content, allows us to continue Andrew’s legacy of waging ‘fights that matter.’” He is also identified as a senior strategist at Oval Office Writers on the firm’s website.
One of GAI’s board members, Rebekah Mercer, is also the sole officer of the Mercer Family Foundation, which is funded solely by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire and Rebekah’s father. Mercer Family Foundation gave $1 million to GAI in 2013 and 2014. These gifts represent approximately 44 percent of GAI’s total expenses in those two years. Mercer’s role with her family’s foundation is not mentioned in GAI’s most recent Form 990 return.
It appears that the Government Accountability Institute, using money from major donors like the Mercer Family Foundation’s Robert Mercer and his administrator/daughter Rebekah Mercer, provided significant income—using charitable gifts—to Bannon while he was employed full-time at Breitbart, to Schweizer while employed at Oval Office Writers, and Hall while employed at both Breitbart and Oval Office Writers. Did GAI receive fair value for compensation paid, or was the compensation excessive and place the individuals in a private inurement situation in regard to their respective relationships to GAI? With Bannon about to become a senior White House aide, perhaps the Government Accountability Institute should investigate itself.—Michael Wyland