Voter drive raised millions, but Abrams won’t say from whom

Nonprofit foundations laid groundwork for her bid for governor
Stacey Abrams speaks to a crowd at a campaign event. The Democratic candidate for governor created two nonprofit foundations that helped to establish her as a major political figure in Georgia.

Stacey Abrams speaks to a crowd at a campaign event. The Democratic candidate for governor created two nonprofit foundations that helped to establish her as a major political figure in Georgia.

Stacey Abrams’ name was nowhere to be found on statewide ballots in the 2014 elections. In Georgia’s House District 89, which she had represented since 2007, she didn’t even have an opponent.

But Abrams was nonetheless directing a sprawling, well-funded campaign, one that established her as a major political figure in Georgia and beyond.

Abrams raised $12.5 million between 2013 and 2016 for two non-profit, tax-exempt foundations she created: Third Sector Development and the Voter Access Institute, public records show. Third Sector ran a voter-registration drive called the New Georgia Project that focused on people of color. Voter Access reached out to what it called "low-propensity" voters, trying to persuade them to cast their ballots.

Now, as she tries to become the first African-American woman elected governor of any state, Abrams won't say where the money came from, even though the two foundations paid her, over three years, nearly half a million dollars.

The foundations’ work underwhelmed many of Abrams’ fellow Democrats. Their party got just 3 percent more votes for governor in 2014 than in 2010, and turnout among African-American voters declined by more than 2 percentage points.

But for Abrams, the registration drive was a success. It introduced her to wealthy progressive activists across the country, some of whom are now spending millions of dollars supporting her gubernatorial campaign. It also led to a fraud investigation by the state Board of Elections, the source of lingering animosity between Abrams and her Republican opponent for governor, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

RELATED: How voting issues became a big issue in Georgia's governor race 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed public tax filings by Abrams’ foundations, her personal financial disclosures, tax returns of organizations that supported her, and records of the Board of Elections investigation. The documents, as well as interviews with Republican and Democratic politicians and operatives, suggest the foundations’ greatest successes lie in creating the infrastructure that undergirds Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign.

At least 13 political consultants, fundraisers and other contractors working for Abrams this year have served in similar capacities for her foundations, her political action committee or her legislative campaigns. At least 11 paid members of her campaign staff also worked for Abrams’ other political and non-profit groups. They include Lauren Groh-Wargo, who was Abrams’ top aide on both foundations before becoming her campaign manager.

“Absolutely, 100 percent, no doubt,” the foundations set the stage for the campaign, a former Democratic candidate said. Like others, the former candidate spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a fear of political retaliation for what might be perceived as criticism of the party’s nominee.

For years, another Democrat said, Abrams made no secret that she planned to run for governor in 2018, “so how shocking is it that a politician would set up committees to get money to help get them somewhere?”

Federal law does not require tax-exempt foundations like Abrams’ to publicly identify contributors. Nor does the law prohibit disclosure, and many organizations routinely publish donor lists.

But the lack of transparency by foundations so closely tied to a prominent politician reinforces public cynicism, ethics advocates said.

“Are these groups, are these people going to have any influence with, potentially, our next governor?” said Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a watchdog group. “You would think turning over at least some of the information would be in her best interest and the voters’ interest.”

Abrams’ campaign declined to make her available for an interview. A spokeswoman, Priyanka Mantha, would not comment on Abrams’ reasons for withholding donor names.

On Friday, the campaign issued a statement in which Abrams said: “I’m proud of New Georgia Project’s efforts to register, advocate for, and mobilize hundreds of thousands of Georgians and successfully combat voter suppression being perpetrated by Secretary of State Brian Kemp.”

Abrams, whose candidacy has turned her into a national political celebrity, also defended her foundations in an interview earlier this year with Glamour magazine. She suggested that questions about the organizations, especially concerning her salary, are sexist.

“The implicit question is: Why didn’t you do it for less – or for free?” Abrams told the magazine. “I can’t imagine that any man at the head of a non-profit, who achieved what we achieved, and raised the kind of money that we raised, would be asked that question.”

Income inequality

Abrams’ complicated relationship with money has hovered over her campaign.

Her first job as a Yale law school graduate paid $95,000 – three times the combined earnings of her parents, she has said. But Abrams had student loans to pay. She charged thousands of dollars on credit cards: American Express, Nordstrom, Sears. She helped support her parents after Hurricane Katrina damaged their home near the Mississippi coast and when they experienced medical problems.

Then Abrams left her law firm job and started several small businesses as she pursued her political aspirations. By 2015, she fell behind on her federal income taxes. Now she’s on a payment plan that requires her to send the Internal Revenue Service $1,000 a month to chip away at the $54,000 she owes in back taxes.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp launched an investigation into the voter drive by foundations created by Stacy Abrams,  and a year ago the Board of Electins recommended criminal charges against 17 of the 800 some people who worked as canvasssers for the drive. But the state attorney general’s office has taken no action against the 17 canvassers. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Kemp has attacked Abrams over her taxes, noting that she lent her campaign $50,000 while owing the government almost the same amount. “If that’s not criminal,” he said at one point, “it should be.”

But in a commentary she published last April on Forbes magazine's website, Abrams cast her financial troubles in broader political terms.

“Systemic biases, legacy barriers, and current explosions of inequality conspire to undermine wealth generation among minorities,” especially women, she wrote.

When Abrams founded Third Sector in 1998 and Voter Access in 2014, neither appeared likely to affect her personal finances. Third Sector apparently raised so little money it didn’t have to file federal tax returns until 2013.

But both foundations flourished after Abrams launched the New Georgia Project, to her benefit. She began drawing a salary from both organizations: $257,500 in 2014, $135,000 in 2015 and $50,000 in 2016.

Over the three years, her compensation totaled more than $442,000 — all for part-time work, according to the foundations’ tax returns.

The face of resistance

Ensuring the right to vote, Abrams has said, is “an essential part of who I am.”

In a 2015 speech to the Atlanta chapter of the American Constitution Society, Abrams said her father, the Rev. Robert Abrams, was arrested when he was 15 for trying to integrate polling places in his hometown, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her father's activism has continued for decades; she joked that her father protested, while her mother put up bail money.

In 2014, Abrams said in the speech, the New Georgia Project set out to register 833,000 “voters of color” within a decade. Most are young, poor, rural and, as she put it, “afraid of voting.”

“They were afraid that if they voted, the sheriff would know how they voted and would come after them,” she said, “that somebody would be able to tell their boss and they would lose their jobs. This is not something that just sprang out of their imagination because often that’s the information that’s communicated to them by those trying to dissuade them from voting.”

Abrams’ depictions of Southern disenfranchisement struck a nerve with progressive activists across the country, who already believed that Republican officials were trying to suppress minority voting. The issue became especially contentious after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act, one that had required nine states, most in the South, to get federal approval before changing election laws and procedures.

Abrams quickly became a face of the resistance to voter-identification laws and other measures that seemed to erode voting rights. This gave her access to the Democracy Alliance, a collective of progressive organizations whose founders include George Soros, the liberal financier. Abrams submitted a proposal to the alliance's members in 2015 that said the New Georgia Project would generate 42,000 to 51,000 votes in the next year's presidential election. Voter Access, another document said, would "communicate and turn out 600,000 low-propensity voters."

Atlanta magazine first reported on the proposals in 2015.

By the end of 2016, the fourth year of intensive fundraising, Abrams’ foundations had taken in $12.5 million.

Although Abrams won’t identify donors, public records show that her foundations got money from several progressive groups that support Democratic candidates. They include America Votes, a non-profit organization backed by labor unions and advocates for gun control; the Sixteen Thirty Fund, another non-profit that also donates to environmental groups; and Priorities USA, a so-called super PAC that supported President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Earlier this year, in an interview with the Atlanta Jewish Times, Abrams for the first time revealed the names of two donors for the New Georgia Project: George Soros and his son, Alexander. George Soros has given $1.25 million to Abrams' political action committee, GeorgiaNEXT, since 2014. He also donated $1 million to the Georgia Democratic Party this year to support her campaign for governor. In the interview, Abrams did not say how much either George or Alexander Soros contributed for the New Georgia Project.

Fraud, or suppression?

The New Georgia Project was, ostensibly, non-partisan.

To keep Third Sector’s tax-exempt status intact, the voter-registration drive could not promote any political party in general or any candidates specifically. Nevertheless, the drive targeted people who tend to vote Democratic: African-Americans, Latinos, people of Asian descent. And, from 2014 on, Abrams’ foundations hired political consultants who work all but exclusively for Democrats.

Third Sector’s largest reported expenditure in 2014 was $1.8 million to a Washington firm that made its reputation through grassroots campaigning for Obama in 2008. That firm, Field Strategies, eventually hired about 800 canvassers for the New Georgia Project. Those workers had what Abrams later called 619,000 “interactions” with potential Georgia voters in the first year alone.

Soon, the New Georgia Project began submitting voter-registration applications by the thousands to county election offices.

Copies of 2014 voter registration files turned over to the state by the New Georgia Project. KRISTINA TORRES / AJC FILE

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That’s when the trouble started.

In Muscogee County, for instance, many applications were illegible, some were submitted multiple times, and others contained suspicious information, said Nancy Boren, the county elections director.

“Duplicate registration forms were received with the same demographic information but with different signatures — for example, James Brown is the name on the application but the signature is Mary Smith,” Boren said.

Boren was one of several officials who complained to the state Board of Elections, prompting an investigation by the secretary of state's office — the agency run by Brian Kemp, whose own ambitions for higher office were as well known as Abrams'.

Investigators from Kemp’s office examined 208 registration applications from 16 counties, according to Board of Elections documents. Of the 208, the investigators alleged that 53 were fraudulent.

State law requires organizations like the New Georgia Project to turn in all applications it collects, even those containing inaccurate or incomplete information. But Abrams has charged that election officials were slow to process the applications, trying to suppress minority voting to protect Republican candidates. By 2015, officials validated about 64,000 of the more than 80,000 applications the New Georgia Project submitted in 2014.

The New Georgia Project says it had collected applications from another 140,000 people by the end of 2016. How many applications have been approved is not clear.

On Sept. 20, 2017, the Board of Elections —which Kemp chairs — recommended criminal charges against 17 former canvassers, but took no action against Abrams or her foundations.

“It seems like we’re going after the pushers and not the kingpin,” said one board member, former state Sen. Seth Harp, a Republican from Columbus.

A year later, the state attorney general’s office has taken no action against the 17 canvassers. The New Georgia Project operates independently from Third Sector. And Abrams and Kemp are their parties’ nominees for governor, still battling over potential voters.