This $100,000 Donation by Matt Gaetz Raises All the Eyebrows

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photo Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photo Getty  

On the day Donald Trump's second impeachment trial began in the Senate, the campaign for embattled Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)-reportedly under federal investigation since the summer for alleged sex crimes with an underage teen-made by far its largest ever political contribution: $100,000 to a mysterious nonprofit created to defend the then-president.

While that donation may not sound out of the ordinary, it stands out for a number of reasons. For one, the size of the donation is curious: It's double the amount of Gaetz's second-largest donation ever, and it's $22,000 more than the campaign's combined gifts to close ally Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). For another, the nonprofit appears to have done nothing now for more than a year. And even odder is the Gaetz campaign's own explanation-which experts say raises questions of legality.

The group, "Right Direction America," is a nonprofit launched in December 2019 by Trump ally and former Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) as a 501(c)4-a so-called "dark money" social welfare organization which doesn't have to disclose its donors but cannot participate primarily in political activity. Christie billed the group as a vehicle to drum up public support for Trump during his first impeachment trial in the Senate.

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But that's not why the Gaetz campaign says it donated to Right Direction America. A campaign spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the organization supports former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who two weeks prior to the Gaetz donation had announced her 2022 campaign for governor of Arkansas.

"We support the mission of Right Direction America," the spokesperson said.

But there's no public record of RDA supporting Sanders for governor, and there isn't activity of any kind since August 2020. According to the Federal Election Commission's database, RDA has received money from no political group other than the Gaetz campaign.

For someone who's so strongly backing Sanders that he would make a $100,000 donation to a group purportedly in support of her, there's strangely no record of any direct donations to the Sanders campaign from the Gaetz campaign, nor from the beleaguered congressman himself-unlike with DeSantis. The campaign did not reply when presented with that information.

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Further complicating the Gaetz campaign's sole explanation that RDA supports Sanders, the group's nonprofit status bars it from participating primarily in political activity. The Gaetz spokesperson did not answer when asked if the campaign knew what else the group did.

It's not a surprise that Gaetz would support Sanders for governor. Sanders' father, former GOP Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has had a relationship with the embattled congressmen for years. Huckabee endorsed Gaetz's 2016 and 2018 campaigns and has a beach house in Gaetz's district. Gaetz reportedly, and notably, backed a Democratic-sponsored Florida state bill that would have kept people off Huckabee's public beach.

And Sanders of course is a close Trump ally, as the ex-president's former press secretary.

But Caleb Burns, a partner at Wiley Rein who specializes in campaign finance and nonprofit law, told The Daily Beast that the donation and the group's activities raise some questions.

Burns said that while the government's exact threshold for "primarily" isn't codified, political activity is often understood to be capped at 40 percent of a 501(c)4 organization's overall work.

"Political activity is also frequently subject to legally required disclosures under the campaign finance laws. However, other policy and issue advocacy-which must generally account for 60 percent of a (c)4 organization's spending-often is not," he said.

According to the Facebook advertising database, between December and February 2020 RDA spent about $35,000 on ads matching its mission. It then ceased that activity. However, last August the group made a political contribution more than double that amount-$75,000-to a super PAC supporting GOP House candidate Matt Mowers, who ran in New Hampshire but lost to Democratic incumbent Rep. Chris Pappas. (Mowers is running in 2022.) It also released digital ads in February targeting Democratic candidates in key Senate races.

Politico has reported that Christie teamed up for the project with longtime Republican strategist Phil Cox. This March, DeSantis tapped Cox as a senior adviser to his 2022 campaign.

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However, Christie-who is rumored to be considering a 2024 presidential bid-left the group on Dec. 31, according to a Christie spokesperson.

Additionally, no news reports have mentioned Right Direction America since the 2020 impeachment trial. Searches of public records, advertising, and political email databases conducted by The Daily Beast and other research groups show no public activity beyond re-upping its incorporation status with the state of Virginia this April-sans Christie.

A Facebook search turns up no pages. RDA's YouTube channel is empty. And its website consists solely of an email signup and privacy policy, which appears to be a popular cut-and-paste template. A search of a nationwide database of state-level campaign finance activity yields no hits.

The Daily Beast has reached out to the nonprofit and its board of directors multiple times over the last several months, but has received no reply. We also signed up for the group's email list in April, but have not yet received one.

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Robert Maguire, director of research and nonprofit law expert at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Daily Beast that the information in the public record "does raise the question of how legit this nonprofit organization is."

"When you see a webpage like that, that has nothing-no press clips, no projects, no events, no contact information, no address, nothing to identify it as a group with an office where people go to work, or produce actual work-the first question is what do they exist to do?" Maguire told The Daily Beast. "How are they validating their nonprofit status?"

The organization, he added, has the outward appearance of "a shield for political activity."

"Gaetz doesn't represent the group, but if the campaign is only telling you they support Sanders, it would indicate they're a political group," Maguire observed. He added that it was "incumbent on the organization" to provide an explanation, but noted the group's activities won't be known until it submits its 2021 tax returns, "which could take until November 2022."

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Neither the organization's current director, Mississippi-based GOP political adviser Joey Songy, nor its president, conservative political strategist Generra Peck, replied when asked what RDA did. They also did not answer later questions about the Gaetz donation specifically.

Peck currently heads up political consulting firm P2 Public Affairs, where Cox is a co-founder. RDA's other board members-strategists scattered around the country-also did not reply to questions about the group.

However, given that RDA's only publicized mission was defending Trump amid his first impeachment trial, the timing of Gaetz's donation-the first day of Trump's second impeachment trial-raises questions about its purpose.

Gaetz, who had reportedly been under federal investigation for sex-trafficking a 17-year-old girl since the previous summer, allegedly sought a pardon during Trump's final weeks in office. The White House reportedly shot down the effort. Then, after the first reports of the investigation broke in late March, Gaetz was said to have inveigled Trump for public support. The former president eventually released a milquetoast 24-word statement saying Gaetz hadn't sought a pardon, and that "it must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him."

Asked multiple times whether the Justice Department has notified Gaetz that he is no longer the subject of federal investigation, two campaign spokespeople would not say. One response promoted Gaetz's podcast. The Daily Beast also contacted criminal defense attorney Marc Fernich-who in June received $25,000 in legal fees from the Gaetz campaign and who has represented sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and druglord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán-but received no reply.

Days prior to the $100,000 donation, Gaetz, a lawyer, offered to represent Trump in the trial. The three-term congressman, whose phone was seized by federal agents in December, told Fox News that given the ethics conflicts, he would even resign from Congress "if the law requires it."

"I only regret that I have but one political career to give to my president," Gaetz said at the time.

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